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ComEd Heckled At Hearing On Power Outages

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Power Outages

ComEd crews work to restore power to the hundreds of thousands of customers still in the dark after the storm Monday. (Credit: CBS)

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UPDATED 08/16/11 6:56 p.m.

HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. (CBS) — A standing-room-only crowd filled a Highland Park Country Club ballroom on Tuesday as ComEd officials tried to explain the response to this summer’s storms, and how the utility hopes to improve performance in the future.

Some of those crowd of about 200 people heckled as ComEd and regulators tried to explain what worked and what has not in the utility’s response to severe storms this summer.

When a question was asked about the costs involved, there were boos, hisses and comments from the crowd. One man asked if it would go toward raises for ComEd executives.

LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s Bob Roberts reports

ComEd President Anne Pramaggiore said the storms this summer have shredded ComEd’s Budget.

“Customer outages due to storms for 2011 have exceeded any full year in the last 10 and we’re only halfway through August,” she said.

A storm on July 11 left nearly 900,000 ComEd customers without power, and it took six days for all the customers to get their power restored.

Altogether, nearly 1 million ComEd customers have been without power at some point this summer due to storms.

The historic level of outages prompted Illinois State Rep. Karen May (D-Highland Park) and the state House of Representatives Public Utilities Committee to come up with a solution. ComEd says smart meters on homes might well have hastened recovery efforts specifically from the July 11 storm, which the company’s president called, “the largest storm in our history.”

As CBS 2′s Vince Gerasole reports, it’s been a summer with so many destructive storms that ComEd has already spent $80 million to restore power to hundreds of thousands of customers affected by the storms – double its budgeted rate for the year.

But Lyle Cazel of Glenview said, “They play fast and loose with the total truth.”

The storms have also empowered the public to speak out about shoddy service and outages that they claim could have been avoided.

“Commonwealth Edison has done no maintenance on our power lines. They are over 50 years old,” Bill Sallin of Glenview said.

“You call up during some of these bad storms and they say power will be back on in four hours. It comes back on in four days,” Cazel said.

ComEd Senior Vice President Fidel Marquez said ComEd will abandon its practice of predicting when power will be restored, based on historical data.

“Rather than rely on that system, we’re going to take more of a good old-fashioned management look at those E-T-R’s,” Marquez said.

State Rep. Dave Winters (R-Shirland) told ComEd officials “To enhance your profit you have actually scaled back on the number of line workers you employ.”

The many complaints from residents, lawmakers and other elected officials prompted another apology from ComEd for all the outages during the summer’s storms.

“ComEd regrets that many of our customers sat for multiple days without power and that some are deeply dissatisfied,” ComEd President Anne Pramaggiore said.

Pramiggiore spoke of localizing dispatch systems for repair crews, bundling jobs so that more are addressed at once, plotting where crew and problems exist using GPS technology and using more local contractors to ramp up repairs faster.

Park Ridge Mayor David Schmidt complained that the problems with ComEd are not limited to storm outages, but poor service that he said has been going on for years.

Schmidt was among nearly two dozen suburban elected officials testifying at the hearing, complaining ComEd has reduced maintenance budgets by $46 million over three years, in order to increase shareholder profits from 5 percent to just over 10 percent.

“That seems to be the most important thing to ComEd, rather than the service,” Schmidt said.

But Marquez said the profit margin for ComEd shareholders is on par with other utility companies across the country.

Sallin said he believes there would be far fewer outages if ComEd spent adequate money to maintain the system.

“Our problem with power is not storm-related. It is due to absolutely faulty [equipment], no maintenance by Commonwealth Edison whatsoever on the power lines that are going through our subdivision,” Sallin said.

ComEd officials also used the hearing to stump for legislation that would guarantee annual rate hikes for ComEd. The proposal was approved by lawmakers but is being held up by a legislative maneuver by Senate President John Cullerton due to a threatened veto by Gov. Pat Quinn.

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