Flannery Fired Up: How high will natural gas utility bills go?

The man who runs a multi-billion dollar construction program for Peoples Gas said the work is desperately needed to reduce leaks and improve safety. He strongly disputed an estimate by the Illinois Attorney General's office that massive projects will eventually raise consumers' bills by $750 a year.

Andy Hesselbach, vice president of construction at Peoples Gas, joins us on the latest edition of Flannery Fired Up. Also questioning him: Steve Daniels, senior reporter for Crain's Chicago Business. His coverage of the enormous increase in capital spending by Peoples Gas has prompted new scrutiny of it. Daniels noted that a Peoples executive boasted to stock analysts that Illinois regulation adopted in 2013 guarantee the company can pass such costs directly onto rate payers: "More spending equals more earnings."

Ald. George Cardenas told us on last week's Flannery Fired Up that his City Council Committee on Environmental Protection and Energy would soon hold hearings on the issue. He said the committee will consider calling on Gov. Pritzker and the Illinois General Assembly to rewrite regulations governing capital spending by public utilities. The market price of natural gas remains near historic lows. For most Chicagoans at this time of year, less than 20 per cent of their bill from Peoples is actually to cover the cost of natural gas itself. The balance of the bill is for taxes and the rising cost of the system of pipes that distributes natural gas across the system.

Also joining us, the City of Chicago's Inspector General Joe Ferguson. The City Council could vote as soon as Wednesday on a package of reforms proposed by Mayor Lightfoot. Among other things, they would grant Ferguson unprecedented new oversight powers, including regular audits of spending by aldermen and council committees. Among other reforms is one that would prohibit aldermen from holding outside jobs if it adversely impacts the relative tax burden on average citizens. That‘s specifically aimed at Ald. Ed Burke, whose law firm has won hundreds of millions of dollars in tax assessment reductions for big buildings such as Trump Tower. That's had the effect of raising property tax bills on home owners and others.