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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.

The proposal would dissolve the districts and transfer about $700,000 in annual combined revenue and $5.6 million in fund balances to an existing county service area.

The proposal is returning to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday after being pulled from the agenda March 27 at the request of Efren Carrillo, who represents west Sonoma County. Officials said the move was to allow more public input on the matter and resolve concerns among those in his district.

Amber Twitchell, who is active on Russian River community issues, said some of the worries were addressed in meetings with Carrillo and public works officials this week.

She said she and others sought assurances the consolidation would not affect current levels of lighting service in the area and that county leaders would allow for input on decisions for the consolidated network.

She acknowledged the downside for better-funded districts, calling it a "sacrifice" that would benefit the larger community.

The move to shift money freed by consolidation to long-term road maintenance, meanwhile, has drawn little scrutiny.

At least one county supervisor, Valerie Brown, said she wasn't aware of the link before an interview Friday.

The money would come from savings expected out of a $5 million network-wide switch to LED street lights.

The more efficient lighting is expected to cut energy costs by 40 percent and, within five years, generate about $200,000 in savings, with greater amounts coming in future years, according to the county.

Public works officials have proposed plowing those savings into the county's 1,382-mile road network, more than 80 percent of which is set to go without long-term maintenance because of state and county funding shortages.

Phil Demery, the county's public works director, said the funding shift was justified given the severity of the road issue. "We're in bad shape. At any other time, we probably wouldn't be looking at this," he said.

Technically, he explained it as a rerouting of discretionary road funds used for years to pay for traffic and safety signals. That money will now go back to pavement upkeep, he said.

Urbanek, the pavement preservation manager, called it a "drop in the bucket" of the county's $120 million road maintenance backlog.

But, he said, "Every little bit helps."

The lighting districts proposed for consolidation are different than more modern service districts because their funding, though designated by the county for lighting purposes, comes from the general countywide property tax levy.

That is unlike five other lighting districts in the county, most of which were formed after the state's 1978 Proposition 13 property tax overhaul. They rely on specific voter-approved parcel assessments or property taxes, and aren't part of the consolidation.

The proposal could get mixed reaction from taxpayers, one local government watchdog said.

Taxes authorized for a particular purpose should always be devoted to that purpose, said Jack Atkin, president of the Sonoma County Taxpayers Association.

But where some latitude exists and other services take priority, government needs to respond, Atkin said.

"If they're concluding that lighting is a lower priority and that roads are a higher priority and that they need to re-allocate that money toward roads, I don't have a problem with that," he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.