Updated at 5:59 a.m. Dec. 20
As five area municipalities move closer to attempting a , the company hit back, launching a new website and conducting a telephone survey of residents of the communities.
On Monday night, Lemont Mayor Brian Reaves confirmed that he and many other residents received the phone call last week. The survey was so misleading, he said, that he is consulting attorneys about filing a legal injunction against the company.
"It starts off asking whether residents are happy with water rates and eventually asks questions about [me and the resident's political party affiliation]," said Reaves, who claims the calls are politically motivated.
Chris Bacon, Illinois American’s Chicago metro area external affairs manager, said the surveys are aimed at gauging what residents know about the proposed takeover.
“We just want to gain a better understanding of our customers and their understanding of eminent domain,” Bacon said.
Five communities — , Romeoville, Homer Glen, Woodridge and Lemont — have begun the process of creating a water agency, with the aim of acquiring the Illinois American Water pipeline . By taking over the pipeline, the Northern Will County Joint Action Water Agency would be able to protect residents from additional water rate increases, officials say.
Last year Illinois American Water received approval for a $41 million rate increase from the Illinois Commerce Commission and permission to raise rates by up to 5 percent annually without ICC approval, according to the Chicago Tribune.
The telephone surveys are being conducted by a market research company on Illinois American’s behalf. Bacon said the calls are going out to a sample of the population of each community.
“We’re trying to educate ourselves on what our customers know,” he said.
Last week, Romeoville Mayor John Noak said he was aware of residents in Romeoville, Bolingbrook and Homer Glen who have received the calls, slamming the survey as “blatantly misleading,” particularly where Romeoville residents are concerned.
“They should have changed their survey,” Noak said, adding the calls may have led Romeoville homeowners to believe they are Illinois American customers. All residential customers in Romeoville already receive their water from the village.
Reaves said the situation is similar in Lemont, where only about two dozen village residents are Illinois American customers, as well as some residents in unincorporated Lemont.
The same telephone survey was used for all five communities, with the exception of “one or two questions,” according to Bacon.
Last week, Romeoville trustee Ken Griffin said he was one of the residents who received a call. Griffin said he completed the survey on Tuesday, answering questions that asked residents to rate how happy they were with their village government on a 1-5 scale.
“At the beginning, it was just kind of very general, are you happy with things,” Griffin said.
Other questions dealt with issues like political appointments and patronage, according to Griffin. The call asked residents how they would feel having Cook County officials involved in setting water rates and whether they approve of local mayors appointing people to a water agency oversight board.
The survey went on to ask residents about their feelings on the eminent domain case, presenting a series of scenarios for and against the acquisition of the pipeline, Griffin said.
“I got the distinct impression at the end of the survey that what they were trying to do was build the best argument against this,” Griffin said.
On Monday night, Reaves said the Lemont survey contained similar questions, many of which targeted local leadership.
Website argues against takeover
Recently, Illinois American launched a website, ChicagoMetroWaterFacts.com. The site refutes the municipalities’ claim that the takeover would help keep water rates down, claiming similar eminent domain cases have resulted in higher taxes, fees and rates in other communities.
The site also argues that an eminent domain battle will cost taxpayers “millions of dollars," a claim disputed by Bolingbrook Village Attorney Jim Boan.
"That's one of the fallacies that Illinois American is spreading," he said, adding any costs associated with the takeover would be paid solely by user fees. The intergovernmental agreement between the communities specifies that no property tax or sales tax dollars can be used to fund the water agency.
Boan added that a feasibility study conducted by engineering and accounting firms indicated that the system could be acquired and operated solely with user fees using the current water rates. Boan said he could not say how much the feasibility itself study cost the communities.
On Tuesday, between the five towns to create the water agency, following Woodridge, Homer Glen and Lemont, which signed its agreement Nov. 28.
Noak said Romeoville trustees will vote on the agreement at the Dec. 21 board meeting.
Boan noted that the agreement itself is not sufficient to create the agency, saying an organizational meeting would have to take place first. He said representatives from all five towns met with Illinois American officials last month, pledging to hold off on taking further action until the end of the year to give the company time to make some concessions with regard to rate increases.
"We told them we would give them until the end of December to submit a formal proposal" offering rate rollbacks or giving village officials a say on rate increases, Boan said, adding rates have increased 100 percent over the last decade.
"They made it clear to us that the corporate philosophy is that they will continue to [increase rates]," Boan said.