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Lower rates, or power grab?

Dixon, Whiteside, Lee voters to decide on referendum

Published: Tuesday, March 26, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT

DIXON – Dixon voters will be asked – for a third time – whether they want to give the city the power to negotiate for lower electricity rates.

They will get to vote in an April 9 referendum. So will voters in the unincorporated areas of Lee and Whiteside counties and the village of Lee, in far eastern Lee County.

In November 2010, Fulton was the first community in the state to approve “municipal aggregation.” Many others have done so since, including Morrison and Sterling.

When Morrison officials chose the low bidder for electricity, they said the average household would see a $26-a-month drop in its power bills. Sterling residents got similar savings.

Earlier this year, Sauk Valley Media compared an electric bill for about 900 kilowatt hours in Sterling with one in Rock Falls. The Sterling bill was 27 percent lower.

Sterling now gets its power from Akron, Ohio-based First Energy; Rock Falls has a municipal utility.

ComEd, the electric utility in northern Illinois, makes money from its distribution system, not the power itself. So it doesn’t lose out when communities switch to new providers.

In Dixon, voters rejected the referendum the first time in April 2011. In that election, Mayor Jim Burke, an aggregation supporter, was running against Bob Gibler, who argued against municipal aggregation. He still does.

“I think government is involved too much in our lives,” he said in a recent interview. “Citizens have already voted this down twice. That ought to tell the city something.”

Gibler said officials in cities with aggregation have been “ranting and raving” about how much their residents are saving.

“You never see in the paper about actual people saving anything. You never hear from the people themselves,” said Gibler, who lost to Burke. “Someone will make money off of this, but surely not the citizens themselves.”

For years, he noted, residents have had the right to get electrical service from different companies.

Burke, however, said common sense dictates voting for aggregation.

“You’re able to save $150 or $200 a year on your electricity,” he said. “The savings are going directly to the consumer. The city is not making any money off of this deal. The city is the conduit.”

In an interview earlier this year, Jim Chilsen, a spokesman for the Citizens Utility Board, a watchdog group, said ComEd’s long-term electricity contracts will end this summer, so the company will likely reduce its prices to compete with alternative suppliers.

That will result in a leveling of prices, so consumers in places such as Sterling and Rock Falls probably won’t see such a big difference in prices long term, he said.

So does the utility board support aggregation?

“CUB supports a community’s right to buy electricity from an alternative supplier, in principle,” the group says on its website. “However, it remains to be seen whether community aggregation will lead to real savings for consumers.”

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