Struggling cities turn off street lights to save moneyby Nancy Lebens, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — As the days get shorter, many people might take it for granted that city streetlights will burn longer.
But struggling with falling revenues and cuts in state aid, some Minnesota cities are turning off streetlights in selected areas.
That's what happened in Brainerd, where city officials initially decided to blunt the impact of state cuts in local aid by turning off nearly 40 percent of its street lights.
But when public reaction was decidedly mixed, the city changed course on the streetlight plan and restored power to about 70 lights, City Administrator Dan Vogt said. But the city still has 400 streetlights turned off.
"Overall, there need to be cuts," Vogt said of Brainerd's need to trim its budget. "We needed to find a way to not to substantially affect the public, although in a lot of areas the public said no it does substantially affect us."
By keeping some streetlights off, Brainerd officials expect to save at most $90,000 for the year. City officials also are looking for other areas to reduce the budget that residents will accept.
"We tried to cut in our fire department and the public came out and said, 'no, we don't want to see that,'" Vogt said. "We tried to make cuts in the parks department, the public came out and said 'no we don't want to see that... kind of like the way our services are today and we don't want it changed -- and don't raise my taxes.' "
Other cities also have targeted streetlights as a way to address budget shortfalls.
In Rochester, the City Council debated whether to bill residents separately for streetlights, in essence charging a fee to use a city service.
The proposal would have cost each household about $2 a month. Council member Bob Nowicki said the fee had the added advantage of including non-profits that don't pay property taxes. But Nowicki said there wasn't enough public support for the proposal.
"People said they'd rather pay more taxes and write it off," he said. ... "Maybe when people have time to think about the streetlight levy and the see the budget cuts they might want to come back to it."
Just northwest of Rochester, the town of Zumbrota decided to go with a streetlight fee. The fee for each household was $4.75 a year to make up for states cuts in local government aid.
Zumbrota City Administrator Neil Jensen and the City Council looked for $150,000 to compensate for loss of the state aid. Raising revenue by instituting a fee was part of the solution to this year's budget problem. But he said council members are now looking for ways to wean the city off the fee.
"We're going to reduce it now," Jensen said. "If we end up with a significant LGA cut that we can't cover with our budget, then we're going to increase it again."
Ground Level: Cities in Crisis
This article is part of MPR News' Ground Level project, aimed at covering community issues prompting Minnesota residents to take action. You can find more on our Ground Level blog and on our Ground Level: Cities in Crisis page.
- Morning Edition, 09/22/2010, 7:20 a.m.
Nancy Lebens is an editor for MPR News.