Electrical aggregation fizzled in many local areas

CRYSTAL LAKE – The possibility for lower electrical bills wasn’t enough to persuade many voters here to give local governments the authority to negotiate for cheaper power.

Voters here rejected at least half of the 18 electrical aggregation referendum questions that appeared on primary ballots Tuesday, according to unofficial election results. That’s in contrast to the results statewide, where the measures passed in three-fourths of the nearly 300 Illinois towns that ran them.

The referendum questions asked voters to let their local government, or groups of local governments, try to find them lower electrical rates on the open market.

Referendums in McCullom Lake, Algonquin, Spring Grove and Marengo all failed by fewer than 10 votes each. In other places, the results were clear.

Voters in unincorporated McHenry County rejected it by nearly 2-1.

The outcome of what had appeared to be an uncontroversial referendum caught some local leaders off guard.

“I was somewhat surprised based on the previous elections last April where these measures passed pretty easily,” said Anna Bicanic Moeller, executive director of the McHenry County Council of Governments.

About 20 towns in the state cut aggregation deals last year – including Harvard and Fox River Grove – reaping savings of up to $14 a month for electrical customers.

There was some opposition to aggregation this time. A few days before the election, professionally made signs encouraging voters to vote against it appeared in towns throughout McHenry County.

It wasn’t immediately clear who was behind the anti-aggregation effort or why they opposed it.

For some voters, the decision was easy. If there was a chance for cheaper electricity, they supported it.

Others didn’t want to give local municipalities additional authority.

“What sounds good in theory never is when the government is involved,” Crystal Lake voter Donna Clasen said. “I think most people in general are quite capable of taking care of themselves, looking for rebates and lower prices as needed.”

She wasn’t alone. Several local municipal officials have recognized that distrust was a factor for some voters.

In Huntley, where the referendum passed by a wide margin, Village President Charles Sass said he couldn’t understand opposition “unless it was more of a concern that big government is sticking its nose where it doesn’t belong.”

Besides unincorporated McHenry County, aggregation efforts failed in unincorporated Kane and Will counties. That may be, in part, because residents of unincorporated areas are less likely to encourage more government involvement in their lives, McHenry County Administrator Peter Austin said.

Some voters felt as though they didn’t know enough about how it would affect them.

Ringwood resident Kerri Connor decided more than 18 months ago to find a greener alternative to ComEd. She signed up for the Green Option with Energy Plus electric service, which backs the creation of wind power. She voted against the referendum.

“I currently use a company that uses wind energy,” Connor said. “I don’t mind if it costs me a little bit more to use it. [But I didn’t] know that I would have control over that with electrical aggregation.”

Connor also said she would have liked to have more information before she voted. She said she first learned about the referendum from a village newsletter.

By law, towns where the measure passed must have two public hearings before moving ahead. Residents will have two chances to opt out: when the local government sends out a letter telling residents that their electricity supplier is going to change, and again when the local government mails notice that the supplier has changed.

In Spring Grove and Marengo, where the measures failed by a handful of votes, officials could ask voters to reconsider by running another referendum, possibly in November.

Officials in Algonquin are waiting for the certified election results, which are expected in early April, before deciding how to proceed, said Michael Kumbera, assistant to the village manager.

Several local municipalities banded together to boost their purchasing power by forming the Northern Illinois Governmental Electric Aggregation Consortium. Towns where the referendum failed will have to withdraw from the group.

The consortium plans to move ahead with aggregation efforts quickly, Bicanic Moeller said. A revised request for proposals, reflecting the smaller size of the group, already has been sent out. Bids with the preliminary electricity rates are to be opened April 9.

“We hope to have the program up and running by June so residents can save during the hot summer months,” Bicanic Moeller said.

Most of the other towns in the state will try to cut deals during what could be a short window for savings.

That’s because the higher Ameren Illinois and ComEd rates that officials are betting they can beat are likely to drop over the next 15 months or so, according to the Citizens Utility Board, a consumer advocacy group. Long-term contracts signed by the two major Illinois utilities several years ago, locking in higher rates, are due to expire by next summer.

Consumers in towns where the measures have passed likely will see lower rates in the short run.

“You would almost have to try not to save some money” compared with utility prices that are currently locked at 20 percent to 30 percent more than market rates, said David Kolata, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board.

The question, he said, is what happens after that.

• Northwest Herald reporter Chris Cashman and The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Split decisions:

How voters in local municipalities and unincorporated McHenry County voted on electric aggregation referendums:

YES: Cary, Crystal Lake, Huntley, Island Lake, Lakewood, Prairie Grove, Ringwood, Woodstock.

NO: Barrington Hills, McHenry County, Algonquin, Johnsburg, Lake in the Hills, Marengo, McCullom Lake, McHenry, Spring Grove, Wonder Lake.

Source: Unofficial election results

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