New law would let towns own their street lights

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AUGUSTA — A new law has been proposed that would give towns the ability to purchase and maintain their own street lights, rather than paying Central Maine Power Co., which is the only option towns have now.

Last budget season, Falmouth targeted 174 street lights for elimination to save money. However, after citizens showed up in droves to protest the shuttering of their streetlights, the town killed the plan.

As a result, Falmouth wasn’t able to cut $20,000 from its 2010 budget and will have to make that up in the 2011 budget.

Had this proposed law been in effect, however, Falmouth Town Manager Nathan Poore said there would have been other options to explore.

“I wouldn’t have even looked at street light elimination at all,” he said. “This would have given me more flexibility.”

To make the necessary cuts, the town would like to install energy efficient light bulbs in all its street lights, which would cut back dramatically on the town’s electricity bill. Poore said they would move forward with that if they could. The problems is, CMP, which owns the street lights, won’t install the new bulbs without signing a new 15-year contract on each street light.

CMP spokesman John Carroll said it is not cost effective for the company to install the energy efficient bulbs primarily because of the cost of the bulbs.

That was where Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, stepped in. Harvell introduced a bill, LD 493, that would give municipalities the right to rent the utility pole space from CMP, and purchase and maintain the lights themselves.

“This bill is to introduce competition,” Harvell said. “The reality is, that CMP has a monopoly.”

Harvell said his hometown of Farmington estimated it could save $20,000 per year just by switching from traditional bulbs to light emitting diode bulbs, something CMP has not yet offered to towns. Harvell suggested that the power company has little incentive to offer an energy-efficient bulb, as the current bulbs generate more revenue for the company.

“This bill aims to save municipalities money,” Harvell said.

The bill would allow municipalities a choice: They could rent the utility poles from CMP and maintain their own street lights, use a private vendor, or continue to purchase the street lights from the power company.

“The reality is that they’re CMP’s poles. But it’s the state’s land,” Harvell said. “If (CMP) had been taking care of business this bill would be unnecessary.”

However, Carroll said CMP was concerned that having towns or vendors installing equipment the company’s employees were not familiar with was a danger to both the people installing the lights and to any CMP employee working on the pole. He also expressed concern about the quality of the fixtures, which, if not well attached or maintained, could fall off in bad weather.

“This would be putting our employees and the general public at risk,” Carroll said.

Carroll added that CMP does not establish its rates by a town’s usage, but rather what the company needs to deliver electricity.

“If customers cut their electricity use in half, it doesn’t mean it’s less expensive to deliver,” Carroll said.

The new bill would only allow CMP to charge towns a rental fee equivalent to what the company pays for the right of way for its poles, making the entire thing cost-neutral. However, Carroll said that would force the company to cover the costs of maintaining the poles in other ways, such as raising rates on all customers.

“This bill doesn’t provide compensation for CMP,” Carroll said.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net

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