Let there be street lights
Town pulls switch on cost-cutting try
In a time of municipal budgets stretched to their breaking points, it seemed like a simple concept: Turn off street lights, save money.
But the town of Milton has found that it isn’t that simple. A combination of factors - busy intersections and curving roadways, potentially hefty utility charges to completely cut power, and complaints from residents - turned its street-light turnoff program into one big turnoff.
The town, which had switched off 400 of its 3,300 street lights since late July, has begun to turn them back on, following a Sept. 24 vote by the Board of Selectmen to end the program. By mid-November, all of the street lights that were turned off are expected to be back in operation, except for those few near residents who have been bothered by them at night and have asked the town to leave them off.
Milton had hoped to save about $80,000 of the $180,000 it spends annually on street lights by turning off half of them. But “in the end, it just wasn’t cost-effective,’’ said Selectwoman Marion McEttrick.
The street-light turnoff program was approved at Town Meeting in May as a way to save positions in the Department of Public Works budget. But the departure of former DPW director Walter Heller in February to take a state job and the five-month gap before the hiring of Joseph Lynch in July meant the program got off to a slow start.
“Obviously, it took the new director some time to get up to speed,’’ said Town Administrator Kevin Mearn.
Almost from the beginning, the goal of cutting back the street-light budget so drastically had seemed overly ambitious. Road intersections and dangerous areas had to remain lighted, hills and curving areas of roadways, too. On some streets, leaving two adjoining lights on for safety reasons meant that two consecutive lights further down the street would be doused, prompting complaints from residents. The many trees that line town roadways were another complicating factor.
“Residents raised concerns, particularly seniors,’’ Mearn said. Sixteen percent of Milton residents are 65 or older, according to the 2000 Census.
“We didn’t want people afraid to go out at night,’’ said McEtrrick.
Some residents resented the move to turn off street lights just after voters had passed a $3.42 million override of Proposition 2 1/2 in June, although McEttrick said the street-light program was never contingent on the override vote. (About half of the override money went to town schools, and the remainder was distributed to other departments to offset an estimated $1.2 million decrease in local aid and a $600,000 drop in local receipts.)
There was also the possibility of having to pay a hefty charge - possibly up to $300 a light, according to town officials - to the electric utility
Mike Durant, a spokesman for NStar, which owns the light poles and provides the power, said the company had met with Milton officials several times to discuss what the town wanted to do and the possible costs.
“We had no problem with them removing the photocells, but the fact is that there is still current flowing into the fixture and it’s still using energy,’’ he said. “We talked about some of the ways the current could be stopped and of placing ‘red caps’ on the turned-off lights. Obviously, if our personnel were involved or if they wanted the light fixture to be removed from the pole, there would be a charge.’’
McEtrrick said putting the DPW crew full-time on turning off lights also meant less time repairing and replacing existing street lights.
The Sept. 24 decision doesn’t mean the town has abandoned efforts to bring down its street-light bill. Lynch is now looking elsewhere in his budget for the planned $80,000 in savings. Officials are looking into gradually replacing the current sodium vapor lights with light-emitting diode, or LED, lighting, which uses about 50 percent of the energy consumed by sodium vapor lights.
“We’d probably need a capital bond, but it would be worth it in the long run,’’ said McEtrrick.
Other Massachusetts communities are still pursuing savings with street-light turnoffs.
Andover selectmen voted in August to pursue a limited program affecting streets with only five or more lights.
Webster has turned off 600 of its 1,500 street lights to save $60,000, said Town Administrator John F. McAuliffe.
Fitchburg has extinguished 1,900 of its 3,100 street lights and hopes to save about $260,000 this fiscal year, according to its DPW director, Lenny Laakso, although residents have been circulating petitions to have some of the shut-offs reversed.
Municipalities evaluating similar measures include Dennis, which has identified about 830 lights that could be turned off to save $55,000, said Town Administrator Richard White. The town is holding a public hearing on the proposal on Oct. 20.
Rich Fahey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.