Chicagoans fight surging utility rates

CHICAGO — With 57,000 households having their heat shut off, people unable to cook, no hot water for bathing, and the chill of fall setting in, low-income Chicagoans are looking to use the upcoming election for governor to press for a law that would allow them to pay their utility bills based on their limited incomes.

Organizers hope the Affordable Energy Act, which has languished in the basement of the Illinois State General Assembly for four years, will be resurrected for the fall legislative session.

As winter approaches and natural gas prices creep upward, Commonwealth Edison has announced a 22 percent increase in electric rates effective Jan. 1. In reply, Chicago seniors, disabled and low-income people are announcing a “We can no longer pay” campaign. The goal is to spotlight how unaffordable natural gas and electrical service have become.

Maria Majic, co-chair of the campaign, said, “If you’re a disabled worker on SSI and receive $603 a month, and your rent is $500, you have $103 for all of your needs for the next 29 days. Do you choose eviction so you can pay your utility bills? Do you live without heat and lights? Do you fast for 17 out of 29 days with only one meal for the days you can eat?”

She continued, “We went through a summer where 39 people died who might not have had to. Then, when we thought the worst was over, six children were murdered in a fire because their electricity was shut off. The Ramirez family had been approved for a Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) grant, a federal program that provides grants for low-income households, but Commonwealth Edison rejected it.

“Don’t consumers have the protection of the U.S. government that would stop the utility from shutting off an approved customer like the Ramirez family?” Majic asked. “Com Ed, after showing the biggest profits in their history, received a rate increase approval from the Illinois Commerce Commission. The commission’s job is to guarantee that when a monopoly controls the selling and distribution of a utility, it does so in the interest of those who pay. If Com Ed showed record profits when there was a rate freeze, why give them extra profits?”

Carol Moore, mother of a young child and an organizer on the city’s near south side, said, “The right to be warm in winter and safe, secure and comfortable in summer seems so basic. It’s only insane greed on the local, state and federal level that would allow us to spend $1 billion a week on a war that is unwinnable and is only killing those who shouldn’t have to die, like the Ramirez children.”