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Should voters get a say in sale of public water systems to private companies?

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WEEK) — A new bill before the Illinois General Assembly would require proposals to sell a public water system to a private company to go to a voter referendum before approval.

House Bill 2392 would require a referendum of local voters before a city or village could sell its water or sewer system to private water companies, including Illinois American Water and Aqua Illinois.

If a majority of voters cast ballots against selling the water company, the Illinois Commerce Commission would be required to block the sale of the utility.

Last year, former Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a bill renewing the ability of private water companies to raise the rates of existing customers to pay for the costs of acquiring new water systems. It also eliminated a cap on the size the water system private water companies can acquire.

Water company acquisitions already undergo a review process by the Illinois Commerce Commission.

“Five years ago, private water companies pushed a bill that let them increase rates on their own customers to buy more public water systems,” said state Rep. John Connor (D-Crest Hill), the sponsor of HB 2392. “Last year, they extended that bill another 10 years.  And who’s paying for them to buy these public water systems?  You are, if you are on a private water system. I just think that in a democracy they should get permission from most of the people affected first.”

The consumer advocacy group Citizens Utility Board also supports the legislation.

“Shareholders in corporations are given the opportunity to vote prior to the sale of that corporation,” said Bryan McDaniel, CUB’s director of governmental affairs. “The residents of the municipality are the shareholders in their water system and deserve a vote on the future of an asset critical to their lives.”

Several groups, including Illinois American Water, Aqua Illinois, Illinois Union of Operating Engineers Local 150, Illinois Manufacturers’ Association and Illinois Chamber of Commerce, opposed the legislation.

“This proposed legislation simply adds an unnecessary delay to water and/or wastewater acquisitions which have already been approved by elected officials after public notice.  A process already exists for acquisitions which includes a Request for Proposals (RFP), public notice, council/board vote and community education.  The acquisition process also requires Illinois Commerce Commission review and approval – an 11-month process which allows for interveners and key stakeholders to be a part of the process,” said an Illinois American Water spokesperson in a statement.

With Illinois receiving a C- grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Infrastructure Report Card in 2018 for drinking water and wastewater, the groups argue that House Bill 2392 would delay the “significant investment to ensure public health” needed in some water or sewer systems that some communities cannot afford to provide.

Tim Shelley

Social Media & Digital Content Manager

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