Proposed light fee sparks debate

Community resistance to a streetlight fee is causing the city to reevaluate its long-awaited plan for new lights  

A proposal to charge Minneapolis residents a fee to pay for the replacement of the city’s streetlights during the next 30 years left many community members glowing with anger last month.

The Department of Public Works rolled out a preliminary plan in September that would charge residents $8–$12 a month during the next three decades for new lights. It’s been in the works for five years and would do away with the city’s controversial process requiring neighborhoods to submit a petition with 65 percent resident approval for new lighting. A moratorium on ornamental lighting has been in place since development of the plan began.

Public Works was supposed to present its proposal to the City Council this month for approval, but overwhelmingly negative public reaction to the plan — specifically to the fee — has caused the department to spend more time rethinking its options.

"We’re going to evaluate what direction we’re going to go in," said Minneapolis street lighting engineer Beverly Warmka. "Since they had input with other ideas and wanted to go a different way, we’re going to see if we can find a more neutral ground."  

Some council members think the proposal needs major modification before it can be approved, but at the same time, would like to get a plan in place as soon as possible.

Council Member Sandy Colvin Roy (12th Ward), chairwoman of the Council’s Committee on Transportation and Public Works, said she wanted to get a new lighting policy drafted back in 2002, when she started chairing the committee. Five years later, she’s as adamant as ever about getting it done but not ready to sign off on this particular plan.

"The next step may be another Council study session to lay out constituent concerns," Colvin Roy said. "I don’t think [Public Works] can redo it without more Council direction."  

The plan presented at nine public meetings in September came from intensive studies on light types, visibility, maintenance, cost and other issues. Many of the city’s existing 40,700 lights were found to provide poor illumination and were beyond their service life.

"The glare put out by current lights is a problem for drivers and police officers," Colvin Roy said.

Public Works’ new lighting plan includes more efficient lights with different designs and sizes chosen for pedestrian areas, residential areas and Downtown.  

Colvin Roy thinks the plan does an "outstanding" job of meeting new lighting standards. It’s how the lights are paid for that bothers her, and many other Minneapolitans.

The proposed fee would rake in $16 million each year to pay for light installation and maintenance costs.

"I really believe this major investment is not the highest priority for that money," said Colvin Roy, who mentioned she would rather see money spent on public safety.

She said alternative funding methods — such as requiring new lights for all reconstructed streets and tying light costs to street assessments — should be explored, and the old petition system should not be completely abandoned. City Council Member Elizabeth Glidden (8th Ward) agrees.   

"I don’t think the fee is going to fly at Council," Glidden said. "Especially on the backs of people who have already paid large increases on property taxes."

Glidden said many of her constituents want new lighting and are growing impatient. She is, too, and is pushing for a revised plan soon or a return to the petition system.

"I am astounded that it’s taken so long," she said.

City Council Member Ralph Remington (10th Ward) said lighting is definitely an issue for some of his neighborhoods as well, but he doesn’t think the fee is such a bad idea. The plan ensures that everyone gets new lighting, including neighborhoods that might not have been able to afford it in the past through a petition process.   

At the final public meeting about lighting at Kenwood Park, Public Works staff said that was a big reason for the fee; it would spread out the burden of payment rather than nailing individual neighborhoods with big price tags when lights get to them. But the presenters had a hard time getting through any other aspect of their plan because reaction to the fee from the dozen meeting attendees was so strong.

"I’m glad that the city is taking the issue to the citizens," said Kenwood resident Mike Fadlovich after the meeting. "But I think it’s clear that a large majority of people don’t want to pay a new tax — which is what this fee is — for something they already have."

Fadlovich suggested neighborhoods decide individually whether to receive new lighting, or go back to the old system, which basically left the decision up to neighborhoods themselves. Public Works staff said they heard many meeting attendees suggest a neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach and they would discuss it.  

Just about 100 people total attended the meetings, which all had the same tone as the Kenwood meeting, Warmka said. Other residents have called or e-mailed Public Works or their council members with thoughts on the plan. But many, such as Kingfield resident Andrejs Cers, were still in the dark about the plan and unaware of the public meetings.

After checking out the plan online for the first time, Cers, an architect who has experience in light design, said the city’s proposed light layout would be a big improvement over its existing lights, but he, too, was uncomfortable with the fee.

"I’m willing to pay for the lights that light my street, but I don’t think the neighbor behind me should."

Another concern of Cers and others in the city was that residents could live in Minneapolis for 29 years and pay the fee without ever getting new lights in their neighborhood.  

Cers is among many residents along Lyndale Avenue who recently completed a petition process for new lights on the soon-to-be-rebuilt road. One exception to the city’s moratorium is petitioning for lights in capital improvement reconstruction project areas. Another is petitioning for wood-pole lights, which are maintained by Xcel Energy.

Some neighborhoods are still paying for past lighting assessments.

Ross D’Emanuele, president of the East Isles Neighborhood Association, said his is one of them. Residents there are concerned about having to pay another lighting fee on top of that, he said, especially since the neighborhood recently had new lights installed.  

The Lyndale Neighborhood Association, which helped spark the city’s look into lighting after a drawn out and divisive neighborhood petition process, planned to discuss the city’s proposal at its general membership meeting Oct. 22. The organization’s Executive Director Mark Hinds said he’s glad the city has taken the time to address the lighting issue, but he doesn’t think lighting should be the city’s top priority for such a large amount of money.

Colvin Roy said she’s pushing to get a Council study session with Public Works organized as soon as possible to discuss options for the plan.

For more information on the development of the city’s streetlight policy, visit www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/streetlighting/.

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or jweyer@mnpubs.com.