Rate hikes eliminate projected savings from S. Portland street light reduction

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Like several other municipalities last year, South Portland wanted to reduce its budget by eliminating street lights where they were not needed.

After an extensive public process, the city darkened 107 lights along major transportation arteries, expecting to save nearly $20,000.

Instead, the city is $5,000 in the red, because of an unexpected – and unannounced – increase in street light leasing fees by Central Maine Power Company.

The experience has soured city officials on further pursuing the initiative, which was not only expected to save money but reduce unwelcome light pollution.

City Manager Jim Gailey said city staff spent a considerable amount of time on the project. Planners meticulously mapped the location of each street light to be shut off, marked each light with a red flag, and provided notice to nearby residents, who were given the right to appeal.

Gailey said the city worked closely with CMP while moving forward with the project and ultimately shut off the street lights on July 1.

A few months later, the city was hit with a 6-7 percent increase in leasing fees it pays to CMP, according to Planning and Development Director Tex Haeuser.

Haeuser said he doesn’t know what led to the sudden increase.

“We have no insight, because of the complete lack of communication by either CMP or the (Public Utilities Commission) to the city,” Haeuser said. 

Haeuser and Gailey speculated that that increase could be related to efforts throughout CMP’s coverage area to reduce street lights, since a reduction in usage means a reduction in revenue for the power company.

In Portland, Public Services Director Mike Bobinski said the city has darkened 335 street lights (mostly off-peninsula) and 188 other “special facilities” since last summer. The goal, he said, is to eliminate a total of 1,000 of the city’s 6,000 street lights.

Bobinski said the increased lease rates have also cut into the projected savings, though city staff was still trying to determine by how much.

Meanwhile, Yarmouth is looking to save $25,000 by eliminating 136 street lights, 30 percent of the town’s inventory.

“I’m hoping that CMP doesn’t have a policy that every time a community cuts back on street lights they jack the lease rate,” Haeuser said. “I’m hoping this is a coincidental situation.”

John Carroll, CMP’s spokesperson, said that the rate increase was indeed a coincidence.

“Entirely coincidental,” Carroll said. “Rates are not based on how many street lights we have in the system.”

Instead, Carroll said lease fees on street lights were increased in July 2009 as part of the company’s annual rate adjustment, which is laid out in a five year plan. Meanwhile, the PUC increased its standard offer rate on March 1, he said.

Since the increases are part of predetermined plan, Carroll said the company is not required to forewarn municipalities. 

Meanwhile, Carroll said, while South Portland eliminated 107 street lights last year, it also installed 35 additional lights on Maine Mall Road, which could have lead to the perception of a bigger lease rate increase.

Although dispirited that the program did not produce the expected savings, Haeuser said the city will continue to look at extinguishing street lights to save money.

“There is a possibility that we have to do more in the neighborhoods than we originally planned,” he said.

Gailey, however, said the city would have to proceed with caution, since many residents expressed concern about darkening the neighborhoods.

“Everyone wants to have a safe neighborhood and rightly so,” Gailey said. “I don’t think it’s going to be as easy a process.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net