URBANA — Mayor Laurel Prussing, a longtime advocate of making the water system a function of city government, thinks her counterpart across Wright Street could be an ally in what might eventually become a fight with Illinois American Water.
"As they continue to raise the rates, I think most people would say we should just buy it," Prussing said last week.
Champaign and Urbana are a bit of an oddity in that a private company, Illinois American Water, owns and manages their residents' drinking water system. It is more common that a local government owns and maintains the plumbing and bills residents, and for years, Prussing has spoken of buying the system and letting the cities manage and deliver residents' drinking water.
"There are quite a few cities that would like to own it themselves because they figure they can run it better," Prussing said.
A prospective purchase is not at the top of the cities' priority lists right now, she said. But with Mayor Don Gerard sitting as Champaign's top elected official, an eminent domain action might not be as hard a sell as it had been with former Mayor Jerry Schweighart in office.
Prussing said Schweighart had been supportive of a takeover, but Gerard seems more open to using eminent domain, a step that might be necessary when the time comes.
"We haven't gone into any details about eminent domain, but he seems to be more receptive to that than Schweighart was," Prussing said.
On Thursday, Gerard said he is never comfortable with eminent domain, the forceful purchase of property, but, "I'm not going to not listen."
"If someone brings forth a proposal and it seems like a good idea, I think it's worth exploring," Gerard said.
And he said taking over the water system is certainly worth considering. He speculated that the cities could remove the profit margin, thereby keeping the rates the same but investing more in the infrastructure and management of the system.
And maybe it is a way to avoid future rate hikes, too, he said.
However, "it remains not something that I'm going to necessary run up the flag pole at this time myself," Gerard said.
Illinois American Water spokesperson Karen Cotton said on Thursday that customers should not be so quick to buy in to the lower-rate theory. The private utility is regulated by the Illinois Commerce Commission, which makes the final decision every time the water company wants to raise its rates.
"We have to provide a lot of information," Cotton said. "Thousands of pages of documentation" to justify rate increases.
Ultimately, that means the final price that customers pay is "based on the true cost of providing water service," she said.
And, despite Prussing's concerns about the condition of fire hydrants and water mains, Cotton said Illinois American Water is ahead of the curve when it comes to system maintenance.
She cited a report released at the end of last year from the American Society of Civil Engineers, which graded the nation's overall water infrastructure a "D." And 85 percent of those systems are municipally owned, she said.
But Illinois American Water's system is not in a "crisis situation," she said. The company "actively and prudently" invests in its infrastructure.
"It's really important not to take for granted," Cotton said. "The result of that, though, is that it does impact rates."
While it will not be an immediate issue, Prussing said, at the very least, it would not cost the city any more to run the water system than it does Illinois American Water.
"Companies are just there for the short term to earn money for the stockholders," she said. "The community really has to look to the future."
This story appeared in print on April 22.