Supervisors to consider consolidating districts, shifting money to roads

Sonoma County supervisors next week are set to consider consolidating 19 taxpayer-supported lighting districts, a move public works officials are recommending in part to shift money toward upkeep of the county's beleaguered roads.

Some residents and business owners in the largest districts have voiced concern — though not with the roads aspect of the proposal.

They are worried about the pooling of their lighting dollars to help smaller, struggling districts.

"I obviously have some reservations because we still have projects that need to be addressed in this community," said Margaret Kennett, owner of Fern Grove Cottages in Guerneville and immediate past president of the Russian River Chamber of Commerce.

The Guerneville district has the second-largest number of lights — 552 — and second-largest cash balance in the system -- over $1 million, according to the latest county records. The largest by those measures is Valley of the Moon, with 1,066 lights and $2.3 million in cash, records show.

The network includes about 2,500 street lights plus several hundred safety and traffic signals in districts stretching from the lower Russian River to the outskirts of Petaluma and Sonoma. They were authorized by state legislation and some date back to the 1940s.

On the other end of the size and income scale are districts such as Pacific View, south of Jenner, which has one light and $5,300 on hand, or West Side, in a county-controlled island of Santa Rosa, which has 17 lights and dwindling reserves of about $8,700.

Such smaller districts face shortfalls in the next five years, officials said, having been hit harder by the recession-era slide in property tax revenue and steady rise in energy costs.

The larger districts aren't in such danger and have built up reserves they will never use, officials said. They recommended consolidation to keep lights on in struggling districts, simplify county oversight and reduce management costs, and help pay for energy-saving upgrades network-wide.

"We're leveling the playing field in terms of the availability of this important safety lighting for other areas of the county," said Steve Urbanek, the county's pavement preservation manager.

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