Can streetlights lighten the budget load?

Brainerd needed a way to resolve a budget problem. The north central Minnesota city relies on local government aid for about 40 percent of its revenue and that state aid revenue was cut by about one fifth in fiscal 2010. If every service was in line for a trim, why not streetlights?

After a summer of hearings to respond to resident complaints and a proposal to turn them all back on, Brainerd continues to keep about a third of its streetlights off. The savings, according to city adminstrator Dan Vogt, are not to be taken lightly: somewhat less than $90,000 a year.

Other cities, like Zumbrota and Wabasha, charged streetlight fees to residents. Zumbrota residents saw a $4.75 per household fee this year. But next year half of that fee will disappear from the water bill where it currently appears. Zumbrota city administrator Neil Jensen says that fee was a mid- budget year response to local government aid cuts of about $150,000. Why won’t the streetlight fee continue?

Jensen put it this way in an email:

The council discussed when it was adopted that if the fee could be put back onto the levy they would try and do it. They look at the fee as a revenue source in case of severe LGA cuts with no means of raising additional funds. There was some opposition for the fee on the council and I also think this was a compromise.

Northfield retreated from a streetlight fee proposal last year, and it’s not likely to come back despite the city’s aim to cut its reliance on state aid in five years. Strong opposition to the fee came from the two colleges in town. Former Northfield city administrator Joel Walinski said St. Olaf and Carleton Colleges are tax exempt properties, so levying a new fee is a difficult sell. The original proposal called for a flat fee charged to single-family residences, then a fee per acre per month for all other properties.

Walinski says 26 Minnesota cities have streetlight utilities that allow them to charge monthly fees and control some of the upgrades to more energy efficient lighting. These cities include Twin Cities suburbs Woodbury and Apple Valley. In its original proposal, the city of Northfield argued that even those who don’t have streetlights near their homes benefit from a well-lit city.

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