Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot Dims Hopes For City Hall Takeover Of ComEd

Lightfoot WBEZ studio
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot Jason Marck / WBEZ
Lightfoot WBEZ studio
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot Jason Marck / WBEZ

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot Dims Hopes For City Hall Takeover Of ComEd

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot is dismissing a push to have the city run its own electric utility, saying it would be too expensive to buy the system from Commonwealth Edison.

“When I get an extra $10 billion, then we’ll have some serious conversations,” Lightfoot said in an interview with WBEZ airing Tuesday morning. “I don't mean to be flip about it … but realistically, when you are talking about setting up an electrical grid and running it, that's a substantial undertaking.”

Some activists and a handful of socialist aldermen want City Hall to take over for ComEd. That could entail the city buying up the electric utility’s infrastructure and hiring its employees to work at a newly-formed, city-run public utility. The push for so-called “municipalization” comes as Lightfoot’s administration is reconsidering its franchise agreement with ComEd.

But as WBEZ reported Monday, municipalization could be a tough sell.

A spokeswoman said the infrastructure ComEd owns and operates in Chicago would cost upward of $10 billion based on past estimates and recent investments. That number is double what a ComEd official said it would cost during an interview on WTTW last summer.

Whatever the precise price tag, Lightfoot called municipalization a “very, very, very steep hill to climb,” and noted the city’s other ongoing financial challenges, including its underfunded pensions.

Still, the mayor said she wants ComEd to answer a lot of questions – particularly about an ongoing federal corruption probe – before she signs off on a new franchise agreement with the company. Federal prosecutors are investigating whether ComEd hired politically connected workers and contractors – some who may have done little or no work – in exchange for favorable government actions like rate increases.

“I'm not going to feel comfortable moving forward until I have a very good sense of what that's all about,” said Lightfoot, herself a former federal prosecutor. “I'm not asking anyone to compromise their, you know, Fifth Amendment rights. But we are not going to do business with someone that we don't have total comfort with.”

The term of the current 30-year franchise agreement officially ends on December 31, 2020. But if either party wants to terminate it, they must give a one year notice. That would mean if Lightfoot changed her mind and decided to create a city-run electric utility, the agreement with ComEd would still continue for at least one more year from the date of that notice.

But even if City Hall doesn’t ultimately try to municipalize ComEd, the threat of doing so could help Lightfoot’s administration negotiate a more favorable franchise agreement, said John Farrell, with the Energy Democracy Initiative.

Farrell was part of a similar campaign to create a public electric utility in Minneapolis.

“We were very aware that this was a powerful piece of leverage that the city had whether or not it exercised that authority,” Farrell said. “And that definitely drove the utilities to say, ‘Let's make a deal.’”

Aldermen and city officials have said publicly that they intend to push for a much shorter agreement. Lightfoot told WBEZ she is also interested in finding out how ComEd handles lower-income customers who struggle to pay their bills.

“When you cut people off from basic utilities, you're essentially evicting them, and you're not valuing them,” she said. The mayor referenced her recently announced plans to end water shutoffs for people unable to pay their bills, following a WBEZ/American Public Media investigation about rising water costs. Chicago runs its own water department.

City officials have commissioned a study in part to look at the possibility of Chicago running its own electric utility. Lightfoot’s administration estimates it will be completed by the spring.

Becky Vevea covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her @beckyvevea.