City considering new fee to pay for streetlights

A proposed overhaul of the city’s process for installing new streetlights could eliminate long wait times for residents, but it would also come with a price.

Currently, residents in an area petition the city for improved street lighting and then pay for it through assessments. Even with a recently streamlined process, however, residents often have to wait as long as a year for the petition to be approved and streetlights to be installed.

The City Council is considering other options, including a program that would systematically replace the lighting systems throughout the entire city over a 30-year span. All residents would pay for that program through a utility fee that initial estimates indicate could cost roughly $8 to $12 per month, or about $100 to $140 per year.

The street light fee would generate $16 million annually, according to a city report. An estimated $9.5 million of that will go to pay for new lighting in residential areas, $4 million will pay for installing new lighting in the Central Business District and pedestrian areas, and $2.5 million will pay for annual electricity costs.

Before moving ahead with the plan, city officials want to hear what residents think. They will be holding a series of meetings throughout September at various locations in the city.

Jon Wertjes, the city’s director of traffic and parking services, presented a city staff report outlining a new approach to streetlights at the Aug. 7 meeting of the City Council’s Transportation and Public Works Committee. The goal of the new plan is to provide a more consistent approach to street lighting and address concerns ranging from a desire to provide better lighting in some areas to a need for better efforts to reduce light pollution and glare. The lack of a clear policy has led to patchy, inconsistent lighting throughout the city, with some areas having too little lighting and others too much.

The plan also attempts to resolve issues related to how streetlights should be funded and how the city should choose which areas would receive new streetlights first.

“We’re looking for a process that simplifies yet addresses all the issues,” Wertjes said.

The city enacted a moratorium on new street lighting five years ago to prevent new light installation during the development of a citywide street lighting plan. Some neighborhoods that desire more lighting have been waiting for the moratorium to be lifted, such as CARAG residents who expressed concerns about dark neighborhoods after graduate student Michael Zebuhr was shot and killed there in 2006.

Council Member Ralph Remington (10th Ward) said he is adamant that the city shouldn’t have a petition process. He said he wants to see a system that provides a clear, straightforward policy for residents. The fact that there would be a fee for a citywide system hasn’t drawn the ire of residents in his ward, Remington said.

“Every meeting I’ve ever had, they’ve said they would be willing to pay for better lighting,” he said.

At least one council member, however, wasn’t sold.

“If we’re going to add another fee onto the taxpayers of this city, I would rather go for a street utility fee,” Council Member Sandy Colvin Roy (12th Ward) said.

Council Member Scott Benson (11th Ward) said that could prompt a whole discussion about the city’s tax policy and what is fair for residents.

Council Member Elizabeth Glidden (8th Ward) said several neighborhoods in her ward, especially Central and Powderhorn Park, have asked loudly about lighting. However, she said she wanted to hear more at the community meetings about what people think about the plan to overhaul the system and the creation of a lighting fee. What will be important, Glidden said, is the process that is set for determining where the greatest need in the city is for new streetlights and how those needs are prioritized.

“I can’t tell you right now where I think residents will lean,” she said.

City staff proposed that a set of priorities should determine which areas of the city receive streetlights first. Such priorities include: whether the lights would be installed as part of street reconstruction projects, areas without any lighting, areas with lighting not meeting city standards, areas with deteriorated lighting systems, the number of pedestrian and bicycle crashes in the area, bicycle corridors, the population and employment density of the area, safety and crime in the area, activity centers, traffic volume, and geographic balance.

The city would continue to use money from the General Fund to pay for the maintenance of streetlights. Residents who are paying for assessments on already completed street lighting projects would continue paying those until the assessment is paid off or the 30-year program ends, whichever is sooner. They will then join other city residents in paying the utility fee.

Minneapolis has more than 40,000 streetlights. Under the new policy, the type of new streetlights put in an area would be determined by which of three categories the neighborhood fits in: the Central Business District, pedestrian areas and residential areas.

If the plan moves forward, the city would begin implementing the new policy in 2008 and begin the streetlight fee billing and payments in 2009.

Reach Kari VanDerVeen at [email protected] or 436-4373.