South Portland may dim street lights to balance budget
SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council is considering a proposal to turn off more than 100 street lights to generate savings needed to balance next year's budget.
The city estimates it could save nearly $20,000 a year, or $1,600 a month, by turning off 112 street lights along some of the city's major arteries, including Main Street and Broadway. If the project is successful, the number of neighborhood street lights would be reduced next year.
Although councilors appreciated the projected savings, many were worried about being inundated with complaints from constituents.
"I think we're going into this a little naive," Councilor Jim Soule said. "We're going to hear from people, because they like 'their' street light."
The city spends more than $312,000 annually, about $26,000 a month, to maintain 2,011 street lights.
"It's by far the biggest line item in our budget," Planning and Development Director Tex Haeuser said. "Therefore, we have been looking at it for a number of years."
Haeuser said he had originally hoped to begin switching to energy-efficient, LED lights, but Central Maine Power Co. does not offer that service. The only way to use LED lights would be for the city to buy and install its own poles and fixtures.
Although CMP offers an Adopt A Light program, where it will bill a specific resident $15 a month to keep a street light lit, Haeuser spoke against using that program for fear it would set a precedent by charging homeowners for public lighting.
Councilor Linda Boudreau suggested establishing an appeal process for residents who can demonstrate an unusual need to keep a particular street light lit. In some cases, the city should offer to buy aggrieved residents a motion-activated light for their homes to alleviate safety concerns, she said.
"Most people like the protection it offers their homes," Boudreau said.
Mayor Tom Blake said a committee should be established to hear complaints, but Haeuser argued that city staff is best equipped to hear concerns. Blake also questioned a recommendation to turn off more than a dozen street lights in Ferry Village, arguing that Sawyer Street is not a major artery.
Code Enforcement Officer Pat Doucette said that over the next week or so he will place red tape around the street lights that are planned to be turned off. Residents should call the Planning and Development office with any questions or concerns.
City Manager Jim Gailey said he would like to move the proposal forward quickly, because the projected savings have been included in next year's budget.
A public hearing is expected to be held before the lights are turned off.
The council also wrapped up its budget workshops on Monday night. Although several adjustments are anticipated before the budget is adopted, the bottom line of the $27.5 million municipal budget remains unchanged.
The council reached a consensus to budget $10,000 in unallocated Community Development Block Grant money to the Trauma Intervention Program, which is heavily used by emergency workers – both for themselves and victims of violent and traumatic events.
The council supported increasing the general assistance budget by $20,000. Half of that increase would be allocated for direct aid for struggling families, while the other half would be used to offset lost revenue from tax abatements, which have tripled this year.
Councilors did not earnestly discuss giving up their taxpayer-financed insurance, which costs $70,000 this year to cover six of the seven councilors. Finance Director Greg L'Heureax said eliminating the council's insurance would only reduce the tax rate by 0.07 percent, saving the owner of a $250,000 home only $4 in taxes next year.
The council, however, may hire a consultant to examine the possibility of putting the city's overall insurance plan out to bid in an effort to reduce costs. The city is currently insured by the Maine Municipal Association.
Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or firstname.lastname@example.org