Push for City to Take Over ComEd Fizzles, For Now, Amid Pandemic, Budget Crisis

(Daniel X. O'Neil / Flickr)(Daniel X. O'Neil / Flickr)

Aldermen who want Chicago to cut ties with Commonwealth Edison and form its own electric utility acknowledged this week that the pandemic and the economic crisis it triggered has dimmed the effort’s chances of success.

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Eight aldermen introduced a measure Wednesday that calls on the city to negotiate a one-year extension to the franchise agreement set to expire on Dec. 31 that allows ComEd to deliver electricity to all city residents.

Even before the pandemic hit, the effort faced long odds of succeeding since Mayor Lori Lightfoot opposed the complicated move because of its huge price tag.

Freshman Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st Ward) said the city needs to be in a more “economically stable place” before it could move forward with plans to run its own utility. Supporters say a public electric utility will reduce the cost of electricity and encourage the use of renewable energy sources and reduce climate change.

“I don’t think there is an appetite for risk,” La Spata said. “This is a terrible time to make decisions with long-term ramifications.”

The push to create its own utility could cost the city between $5 billion and $10 billion — a price tag that could be covered by borrowing against future revenues, supporters say. 

The city’s 2020 budget has a $700 million gap, and officials had been bracing for a $1 billion shortfall in the city’s 2021 spending plan, even before the pandemic forced Chicago’s economy to grind to a halt.

The push to “municipalize” ComEd has been at the top of the agenda for the Chicago chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, since it helped elect six members to the Chicago City Council in 2019.

The effort has been in limbo since February, when the city agreed to study whether it made sense for the city to cut ties with ComEd, just weeks before the coronavirus forced city government to shut down.

Any agreement would be designed to “meet our sustainable energy goals while securing the best possible deal for taxpayers," Lightfoot said in a February statement.

That study had been expected to be completed by the end of June, but it is not clear how long that study has been delayed by the pandemic, La Spata said.

La Spata said he was confident that the study would prove that it makes sense for the city to cut ties with ComEd and deliver electricity directly to residents. Extending the existing deal — which dates back to 1992 — for another year makes sense, he added. Once the deal expires, it can be terminated either by the city or ComEd with a one-year notice.

Even though they disagree about the proposed municipalization of ComEd, the mayor and DSA-backed aldermen agree that inking another 29-year deal is a non-starter, with the term of a new franchise agreement likely no longer than 10 years.

The city already has a public utility — the Department of Water Management, which sends water to Chicago’s homes. In 1947, the city formed the Chicago Transit Authority to take over the L trains, once a network of private lines, under former Mayor Anton Cermak.

Lightfoot has also vowed to hold ComEd’s feet to the fire during the negotiations to press for anti-corruption assurances, while a federal investigation swirls around the firm and its lobbyists’ ties to House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Lightfoot is also likely to press for any new agreement to include efforts to reduce shutoffs, as part of her anti-poverty campaign.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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