Last-minute loan keeps street lamps lit -- for now
Published: Monday, June 27, 2011 at 8:28 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, June 27, 2011 at 8:48 p.m.
More than 25 years ago, Larkfield resident Jim Bouler headed up a successful effort to bring street lights to his neighborhood and others in the unincorporated areas between Santa Rosa and Windsor.
Since then, the fixtures have grown in number to more than 300 and provided both needed illumination and a deterrent to petty crime throughout the Larkfield—Wikiup and Mark West communities, local public safety officials said.
“We understood when we asked to have the lights installed that it was up to us to keep them running,” said Bouler, now 83 and a retired Caltrans engineer.
But the area's county-run lighting district now faces serious fiscal woes. Over the last eight years, it has racked up an annual average deficit of $5,600. By August, that chronic shortfall is expected to completely drain the district's reserves.
“Obviously that can't and should not continue,” Bouler said.
A proposal to rescue the district through rate increases — roughly doubling the annual lighting assessment to $59 for residential landowners, while also rising for a smaller number of commercial and industrial parcels — was rejected by 65 percent of voting landowners in a mail-in election finalized last week.
The results sent Sonoma County officials into a scramble. Under a last-minute deal, a loan from pooled money shared by other county service districts will keep the area's lights on through next June.
After that, a rate increase will likely be needed to avoid turning off at least some of the district's lights, county officials said.
Supervisor Mike McGuire, who represents the area, cautioned that the short-term loan was only a “temporary solution.”
“This can can't be kicked down the road,” he said.
Street lights have become a visible symbol of the tough financial times facing local governments. The city of Santa Rosa two years ago embarked on a four-year cost-saving program to turn off or reduce the amount of time 10,000 of the city's 16,000 street lights are on.
Likewise, Sonoma County's budget woes have prompted a tighter focus on the 23 lighting districts and 3,100 street lights that serve about 20,000 landowners in the unincorporated areas of the county.
Officials conceded the detailed accounting should have come years earlier.
Nevertheless, they said it showed that the Airport-Larkfield-Wikiup Lighting District, while it faces the most acute problems, is not unique among county lighting districts in its financial straits.
Most face funding shortfalls, officials said. The money gaps are driven on the one hand by rising costs, especially for power, and on the other by flat revenue for charges that haven't been increased in years, officials said.
Those charges are paid through parcel assessments or property taxes. In the Larkfield district, the current rates date back to 1995.
As with other districts, the result for the Larkfield district is that annual revenue hasn't kept pace with costs. The total amount in assessments paid by about 1,018 residential and 22 industrial and commercial landowners amounts to about $32,000, while costs in the current fiscal year totaled $41,000.
Electricity alone has increased on average 2.7 percent every year over the last 12 years, officials said. It accounts for $34,500, or more than 80 percent of the current costs. The remainder was spent this fiscal year in lighting upkeep, county administration and on the recent mail-in vote.
Now at $9,000, the funding gap is expected to grow to $15,000 by next July.
“We should have been working on this a long time ago,” said Phil Demery, director of the county's public works department, which oversees the districts. “None of the other districts are at this crisis point. But there are other districts that are headed that way. It's only a matter of time.”
Street-light supporters in the Larkfield and Mark West areas are the first to contend with that ticking clock. Already they've been turned down by an electorate sour on measures that pinch the pocketbook.
Although not yet planned, another campaign to support funding for the area's lights will need to present a stronger argument for the rate increases, supporters said.
“We've got to recognize the facts here,” said Bouler, who serves on an appointed five-member advisory committee for community services in the area. “If we want lights, we should pay the bill.”
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