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.
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.
Mayor Ken Hedberg spoke in favor of “sticking with the traditional lights. We have hundreds in place, and there’s a benefit in terms of maintenance and beautification.”
He did propose, though, to have the city pay half the initial cost, up to $500. And he suggested lobbying to add more LED lighting, in hopes of cutting ongoing costs.
Keeney expressed concern that “someone wanting light cannot afford it,” the way the city has things set up now. The neighborhood petitioning last fall, he said, was “fairly affluent — I didn’t realize it at first, but it’s lakeshore property, probably $700,000 to $800,000 homes. I’m concerned if they are reluctant, what does that mean for rest of us?
“I know I don’t have the support to go there, but I’m not sure I want to subsidize the lights, either.”
Nor is he a fan of overlighting, period. “I like to have it be dark outside.”
He and Council Member Monique Morton wound up dissenting in a 3-2 vote for the new arrangements: the city’s agreement to pay half, capped at $500, if most nearby residents sign a petition to add a light.
The discussion wound up touching on another pet peeve of Keeney’s, namely how extensively the city should be installing the priciest lights, those running $6,000 to $8,000.
He accepts that the logo lights are a nice feature at certain key corners; and indeed the Edelweiss Bakery downtown features them on its website as part of the charm of the district.
But the $8,000 version goes on a fair number of corners, in and around downtown, and the $6,000 one runs up and down some key thoroughfares and even highways.
In what amounts to the latest in a years-long scuffle in Prior Lake between fiscal hawks and advocates of a more upscale look, he added:
“For county highways, I think that’s perhaps an excessive cost. Less expensive lights could function just as well. I don’t support that provision in the policy.”