Laurel Prussing, the mayor of Urbana has learned that it is easier for a foreign corporation to purchase a local water system than it is for a local government to do so. But don’t think that will stop her.
Urbana’s water system has been privately owned for more than a century. RWE purchased American Water, which owns Urbana’s system through a subsidiary, in 2003. RWE sold off American Water five years later.
A slew of problems have plagued Urbana residents. The company has had to issue boil-water notices, instructing customers to boil their water before use because the treatment system had temporarily failed. Customers complained of declining service when American Water centralized its customer service call center. Fire hydrants malfunctioned; a fire destroyed a maintenance building after two hydrants failed. Though the hydrants are the responsibility of the Illinois American Water Co., the fire chief now has firefighters regularly checking hydrants to avoid another disaster due to neglected maintenance.
Discontent with the company’s performance, Mayor Prussing traveled to Germany to speak at RWE’s annual shareholder meeting in 2006 to make her case for local ownership. Prussing was met with applause from the shareholders, but little action from corporate executives, who continued to insist that individual systems were not for sale to communities interested in making a fair offer. Two years later, however, the energy giant began selling off all of American Water on stock market.
Prussing and other Illinois mayors worked with the state legislature to pass legislation that makes it easier for communities to purchase privately owned water systems and return them to local, public control, including a bill that was into law on July 4, 2006.
Prussing renewed her call for local public control of the water system in 2012 after the company proposed hiking rates by 18 percent.
“What it boils down to is: Who do you want to own the system?” said Prussing, “We think we can do a better job.”
- The Future of American Water: The Story of RWE and the Politics of Privatization (report)
- Faulty Pipes: Why Public Funding — Not Privatization — Is the Answer for U.S. Water Systems (report)
- Municipalization Guide: How U.S. Communities Can Secure Local Public Control of Privately Owned Water and Sewer Systems (report)
- Statement of U.S. Mayors and Local Elected Officials