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Com Ed's Smokescreen

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To the editors:

John Hogan's claim that community groups "evaded the issue, obfuscated the issue," in the referendum to replace Com Ed shows more chutzpah than honesty (Neighborhood News, 13 Jan. '89). The referendum questions were as accurate as space for a ballot question allows. Com Ed's response was a smokescreen.

The ballot question in the 46th & 48th wards asked: "Shall the City Council seek lower electric rates when Commonwealth Edison's 42-year monopoly franchise expires in 1990, through an arrangement which calls for the purchase of the cheapest reliable electricity, and charges only for needed services."

We want a new arrangement which distributes electricity itself but purchases it on the open market (rather than generating its own). Such a new utility or authority should charge only for (specified) needed services, rather than overbuilding reactors and buying advertising to defend them and then sticking us with both bills--which Com Ed does now.

The purpose is lower electric rates, the timing is because Com Ed's franchise ends in 1990, and the City Council ultimately must decide.

Hogan's problem isn't that the voters didn't understand but that they did. They understand that Com Ed's rates are among the highest in the nation (currently the very highest). They understand that Com Ed's retail patrons will continue to pay for Com Ed's past blunders of overestimated demand and badly designed reactors. They want out.

Hogan wants them to believe that the only alternative to Com Ed's gouging is precinct captains' running nuclear reactors. He can't fool all the people all the time, and he bitches about it.

In contrast to the clear--if cramped--posing of the question on the ballot, Com Ed's mailing: "Candle, candle, burning bright . . ." is a collection of falsehoods, contradictions, and threats that change would cause dangers which already exist.

FALSEHOODS:

The State Supreme Court ruled that Com Ed must "wheel" power to municipal utilities; but Com Ed claims that Chicago will have to build new power lines to the generating utilities.

Conservation plans include a subsidy for trading in inefficient appliances for efficient ones. Com Ed calls that "Electricity Rationing."

Com Ed threatens special federal & state taxes on Chicago. The idea is that any drop in their $1 billion profits will result in tax losses which Chicago will have to make up. Both federal & state constitutions ban such special taxes.

Com Ed exaggerates the price of its facilities in Chicago--which price is spelled out in its contract--by 500%.

"WATCH OUT! THINGS WON'T CHANGE"

Long ago, the City Council passed a utility tax which finances the city out of your light bill, without consulting the ICC. Com Ed threatens that, if the city puts in a new utility, they could raise your light bill to finance the city without going through the ICC.

Com Ed threatens that, when a new utility takes over the distribution of electricity in Chicago, the Midwest's generating overcapacity will disappear and we will be "sweltering or freezing in the dark." How a change of ownership of distribution can cut generating capacity, they don't say.

CONTRADICTORY CLAIMS:

Com Ed paints a picture of high costs to us. It also paints a picture of low profits to them (and a vengeful congress taxing us to recapture the government's share). But Com Ed is a possible source of wholesale electricity. If juice costs us more than it does now, Com Ed will receive more, and have higher profits. Both threats cannot be simultaneously true.

Com Ed threatens that, under another utility, taxes would be raised to pay for electricity costs and that electric bills would be raised to pay for government costs. Either is possible (just as under the present arrangement), but not both.

While Hogan's misstatements are the most important ones in the article, Burleigh does get some details askew.

She says CEOC wants to renegotiate the franchise rather than buy Com Ed. No one wants to buy Com Ed. Many CEOC members, however, want to buy the wires over Chicago FROM Com Ed. Some CEOC members think that negotiating with Com Ed is still an option. Whichever way the city goes, it is necessary to give formal notice of cancelation.

Rostenkowski's bill doesn't prevent the city's floating bonds to finance the change. It does require taxes to be paid on those bonds. This will cost us $30 to $60 million/year in extra interest, a fraction of the $500 million/year that ratepayers will save.

Other points of information: City officials seem to think the new utility would be a city department. Community activists see many more possibilities. They are considering an independent authority managed by an efficient private utility or by a management company, and a consumers' co-operative. Wilder ideas include the city's owning the physical infrastructure and renting it to an operating utility, competing utilities, and neighborhood utilities supplied by cogeneration.

The first public discussion of the tamer alternatives will be held on Feb. 11th (10:30 'til 1:00) at St. Thomas Church, 4837 N. Kenmore.

Anybody who wants to know how we'll get electricity in the '90s should attend.

Frank Palmer

Uptown

Nina Burleigh replies:

Mr. Palmer labels the main issues in this dispute exactly as I described them. But even he is not suggesting that the city buy Com Ed outright. Also, Rostenkowski's amendment to prevent the city from issuing tax-exempt bonds is simply another way of saying taxes would have to be paid on any bonds the city floated to buy the utility.

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