The city of Rock Island will not sell its water and sewer system.
City Manager Randy Tweet announced the decision Friday following months of pressure from public works employees, residents and union members who marched in protest, circulated petitions and spoke out regularly at city council meetings in opposition to a proposed sale.
The decision ends an 18-month exploration period by the city to determine if "a possible sale of the water and sewer utilities could provide a long-term benefit for the citizens of Rock Island," Tweet said in a press release.
"During the exploration period, many citizens of Rock Island spoke out against privatization of the city’s water and sewer utilities," he said. "After considering the available information, as well as other major pending projects such as the distribution of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds and the city manager search, the Rock Island city council is suspending further exploration into the privatization of the city’s water and sewer utilities."
Rock Island's public works employees became alarmed last year when Illinois American Water representatives hosted a meeting at the water plant in October to answer questions about the impact of a potential sale. Employees were concerned that if the city sold the public utility, they would lose union benefits and residents would see their water and sewer bills increase substantially.
Rock Island has owned and run its water and sewer system for more than 180 years.
Consideration of a sale advanced to the point where executives from the company gave a formal pitch to city council members July 26 as more than 50 of the city's public works employees, AFSCME Local 988 employees and residents marched in protest outside City Hall.
Illinois American Water executives targeted the city's underfunded police and fire pensions as one of the reasons the city should sell off its water and sewer system. A sale would give the city instant cash it could apply to the $122 million of police, firefighter and Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund pension debt, they said.
The city posted a request for proposal (RFP) on its website Aug. 16 seeking a consultant who would have guided them through assembling a separate RFP seeking a buyer for the water and sewer system if council members had voted to sell it. Bids for the consultant were to be opened Sept. 10.
"While I believe that privatization of the city's water and sewer may relieve the city of current bond debt, remove the burden of paying for EPA mandates, and provide money for much-needed infrastructure improvements, I also believe that the decision to sell should not be on the shoulders of seven council members," Alderman Randy Hurt, Ward 2, said Friday. "This decision should be up to the citizens, and I feel if it were to be placed on a referendum then it will surely fail.
"The citizens have emailed the council and showed up at meetings to voice their opposition, and we have listened," Hurt said. "We represent the citizens of Rock Island, and if their wishes are to keep it as is, then it is our responsibility to honor that."