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Lobbyist uses political savvy in Springfield to tackle bill — her water bill

Google Maps Aerial view Billie Paige's home brown-roofed house with pool back partially hidden by trees. The house is third

Google Maps Aerial view of Billie Paige's home, the brown-roofed house with the pool in back, partially hidden by trees. The house is third from the bottom house and second house from the top on the right side of Chestnut Lane.

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Updated: April 29, 2013 11:35AM

SPRINGFIELD — An Illinois lobbyist who once had a portfolio of Fortune 500 clients and helped Carol Moseley Braun become the first black female U.S. senator is now using her well-honed political skills on another Statehouse cause: lowering her water bill.

Billie Paige lives in the south suburbs, has a 25,000-gallon swimming pool and has programmed an underground sprinkler system at her home to spray her lawn three days a week during the warm-weather months.

When Paige’s water bill nearly quintupled last year after her water company increased rates, she got busy doing what she knows how to do best — writing legislation.

“This might be the first time in all the years that I’ve been lobbying that I’ve introduced a bill for me and my neighbors,” Paige told members of the House Public Utilities Committee.

Her move has generated controversy because it appears to critics like she’s trying to wield her clout at the Statehouse to settle a score with one of her utility companies in what essentially amounts to a billing dispute. She insists she’s merely acting as the Springfield voice for more than 1,000 of her neighbors and fellow Aqua Illinois customers, including those in University Park and unincorporated Crete Township.

Last week, Paige testified that her water and sewer bill charged by Aqua Illinois went from $140.38 in October 2011 to $656.34 last September despite no noticeable change in her water usage.

“Five hundred percent for me was substantial,” she said, referring to the increase in her bill. “One thousand percent for other of my neighbors was very substantial. One lady was crying because her water bill during the spring and summer was bigger than her mortgage. I attempted to frame a bill to solve the problem.”

Her proposal, carried by state Rep. Esther Golar (D-Chicago) and state Sen. Donne Trotter (D-Chicago), would bar water companies from raising rates by more than 15 percent. If that cap was broken, customers could sue the utilities and potentially recover double what they paid out in rate hikes, plus attorney’s fees.

Paige, who has donated more than $5,100 to Golar since 2006 and $500 to Trotter in 2009, is a partner in the Springfield lobbying firm, Shea, Paige and Rogal. Her list of clients has included such blue-chip firms as General Motors, AT&T and Anheuser-Busch Companies.

Water rates in Aqua Illinois’ service territory rose dramatically in 2012 after the Illinois Commerce Commission allowed the company to charge users higher sewer bills based on water consumption rather than a flat fee, as it had done in the past.

An identical version of the plan Paige is pushing advanced out of the Senate Energy Committee last week. But the legislation in the House didn’t get out of committee after Kankakee-based Aqua Illinois was joined by other utilities and the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association in blocking the move.

They objected to what they regarded as an improper circumvention of the Illinois Commerce Commission, which sets utility rates. The critics also said it would be an unconstitutional infringement on utilities’ rights to charge enough to cover the costs of running and reinvesting in their companies.

An official with Paige’s water company said she consumes far more water than her neighbors, and any legislation would undercut steps Aqua Illinois has taken this year to help lower water and sewer bills for its customers.

“Any time you’re using 10 times more than what the average is of the customers out there, you’re bound to see a higher bill,” said Craig Blanchette, vice president and operations for the company.

In February, the company got ICC approval to provide new meters to consumers that would better gauge sewer use, potentially trimming consumers’ bills by “hundreds, in some cases, thousands” of dollars, the utility said.

“The process hasn’t had a chance to work yet,” Blanchette said.

House Republicans universally balked at the Paige-backed plan.

“She says she’s doing it for her neighbors. But it would have been better to have the neighbors come forward, just for perception’s sake,” said Rep. Mike Bost (R-Murphysboro), the ranking Republican on the House Public Utilities Committee.

“This looks bad. It just looks bad,” he said.

Paige was a long-time friend of Moseley Braun, helping her all the way back to when Moseley Braun served as the Cook County Recorder of Deeds. Paige was with Moseley Braun when she made history in 1992 becoming the first African American woman elected to the U.S. Senate.

Their relationship took a hit, however, in 2011 when Moseley Braun blamed Paige, her former campaign chairman and treasurer, for not disclosing $315,000 in campaign expenditures to the State Board of Elections incurred during Moseley Braun’s ill-fated mayoral run. Moseley Braun owes $34,610 in unpaid fines to the state.

Golar, whose district doesn’t include Paige’s neighborhood, made clear that Paige’s pursuit of water-rate legislation is simply about helping her neighbors who can’t afford their own Springfield lobbyist to do battle with the water company.

“She’s helping her neighbors,” Golar told the Chicago Sun-Times. “She makes the money to take care of her bills, no matter what they are.”

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