Prior Lake wrestles with the high cost of pretty lights

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON  , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 17, 2014 - 9:47 AM

A citizen’s complaint about pricey decorative streetlights has brought change to Prior Lake.

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Edelweiss Bakery, a busy downtown Prior Lake gathering spot, glowed at dusk amid a group of the priciest decorative logo streetlights with high-end pedestals.

Photo: David Peterson , Star Tribune

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One man’s lament about crime on needlessly darkened streets in Prior Lake has spurred a rethink, and some changes, when it comes to citizen requests of “Let there be light!”

And it has shed some light as well on divisions among City Council members over the high cost of fancy decorative streetlights.

Mike Von Arx took issue in October with the city’s policy of installing far more expensive lights than are strictly necessary — and then assessing the cost back to residents themselves.

“He made an emotional speech that played into a point I had made myself,” said veteran Council Member Rick Keeney. “People want something more modest. He said, ‘Hey, the poles are already there — just hang something on them!’ ”

Von Arx reckoned that as long as a utility pole is already there, as it was in his neighborhood, one can pick up a basic illumination device of some sort for a fraction of the thousands of dollars the city often pays.

The complaint sparked the curiosity of the council, which ordered up a lot more information on the topic. It led city staffers themselves to inventory the stock.

The result, this winter, has been a decision to avoid dirt-cheap yard lights in a quest for consistency and aesthetics, but offer some city assistance in paying for them.

But there were divisions on a number of issues, including citywide subsidies for single neighborhoods — especially affluent ones — and the boundaries to be established for the fanciest lights.

Streetlight hierarchy

The city has an elaborate hierarchy for streetlights. At the pinnacle are those with rock-faced pedestals and city logos, costing $8,000. Nearer the bottom are so-called “cobra” versions, stretching out over roadways and costing just $500.

One does also see occasionally the even more basic yard light, costing $150, and it was something like that that Von Arx had in mind for his own underlit part of town.

Council Member Vanessa Soukup told colleagues she does hear this sort of complaint.

“I have heard from many visitors and residents that we tend to lean on the side of ‘unlit, rather than lit,’ and it becomes a safety concern. We need to look at something in a more cost-effective manner.”

But City Manager Frank Boyles cautioned that each new light means an everlasting cost to bear. When Keeney spoke of “subsidies” to install them in the first place, in opposition to a proposed $500 city contribution, the city manager said:

“Don’t forget, you are necessarily in a subsidy situation here. The minute you allow one to go up, the maintenance and energy cost is paid by the general taxpayer in perpetuity. It’s far more expensive than that $500 share, over the lifespan.”

A study undertaken by the city staff found 1,360 lights, of which 142 are decorative. Overall, the average operating cost is $145 a year.

Three different utility companies manage a share of the city’s lighting, further complicating matters and limiting the council’s interest in adding still more twists by way of styles and replacement bulbs.

For residential areas, the question was whether to allow neighborhoods to dispense with the Colonial model, standard for newer areas, whose cost runs between $1,000 and $2,000 each.

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