The Cold War With We Energies
Bauman, other aldermen believe city is charging too little for utility's use of city land.
Led by Alderman Robert Bauman, members of the Common Council are engaged in a cold war with We Energies. The latest turn includes a council committee voting to hold an easement request from the utility by a 3-2 vote.
The issue dates back to 2011 when the utility requested, shortly before a vote to approve the streetcar, the city pay the utility approximately $40 million to relocate electrical, gas and steam lines along the proposed route. State legislators later amended Wisconsin law in We Energies favor to require the city to pay for any utility relocation work, ending the city’s ability to challenge the utility’s demand in court.
Bauman, Ald. Nik Kovac and others alleged at the time that We Energies was trying to kill the project.
And while the streetcar began operating in November 2018, another conflict emerged between the utility and city over solar power last year. The utility rejected an interconnection agreement necessary to connect one-megawatt of planned solar panels on city-owned buildings to the electrical grid as part of a partnership between the city and solar provider Eagle Point.
Bauman wasn’t happy. “Hell will freeze over before I vote for doing business with We Energies,” said the alderman during a January meeting. The city ultimately financed a much smaller solar installation on its own, and is evaluating We Energies’ proposal.
Now comes the current skirmish.
Department of City Development real estate analyst Yves LaPierre was before the Public Works Committee Wednesday morning to secure approval on an easement for We Energies to install a gas line under the first six feet of a vacant, city-owned property at 2476 N. Teutonia Ave.
“They’re moving a little bit into city property because there are so many utilities in the street,” said LaPierre.
The city would charge We Energies $1,000 for the easement, which LaPierre said is a standard amount for a “smaller easement.”
“This is for their convenience, correct? Not our convenience,” asked Bauman. LaPierre agreed. The alderman asked how the fee was calculated.
“What we go by is what we charged in the past,” said LaPierre.
“Given the outright hostility We Energies has shown towards the city in a variety of other settings, I think $1,000 is awfully cheap and I think it should be ten times that,” responded Bauman.
“If there is any actual disadvantage to a resident in the near term I would say full speed ahead,” said Kovac. But LaPierre said We Energies wants to install an upgraded natural gas line, meaning that residents will not be hurt by any delay.
Or as Kovac put it: “It’s scheduled routine maintenance.”
“And we subsidized their downtown maintenance to the tune of $20 million,” Kovac added, referencing the $15 million the city had to put into escrow for utility relocation during the construction of the streetcar’s first two phases. The city was $2 million under budget on the first phase’s $11 million utility relocation budget as of October 2018.
Kovac moved to hold the measure, with the clear intent to send a message to We Energies. The motion carried 3-2, with the support of Bauman and Ald. Mark Borkowski, a normally talkative council member who had not one word to say on the issue.
“I agree the issue is what is fair with what we should be charging for permits and easements, but at the same time I don’t want to be hurting residents,” said Ald. Michael Murphy. Ald. Cavalier Johnson and Murphy voted against the hold. But neither of them offered a word of support for We Energies.
We Energies isn’t pleased. “Seriously?? It’s unfortunate Ald. Bauman is resorting to political games over the future safety and reliability of natural gas lines in a Milwaukee neighborhood,” said We Energies spokesperson Brendan Conway in a statement.
The next Public Works Committee meeting is scheduled for May 15th.
If you think stories like this are important, become a member of Urban Milwaukee and help support real independent journalism. Plus you get some cool added benefits, all detailed here.