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Woonsocket to turn lights back on

November 29, 2011

WOONSOCKET — Buoyed by a positive financial forecast, the city is ready to restore one of the first and most controversial casualties of the recession — streetlights.
With the support of Mayor Leo T. Fontaine, Councilman William Schneck will introduce a measure during his last meeting Monday calling on National Grid to reactivate about 1,200 streetlights that were shut off at the city’s request in March 2010.
Schneck, who did not stand for re-election this year, said he always had mixed feelings about shutting off streetlights to save money, and he’s happy that one of the last things he’ll do as a councilman is sponsor a measure to turn them back on.
“I don’t think you can put a price tag on the peace of mind that comes with seeing the lights on your street turned on at night,” he says. “It’s a quality of life issue.”
Fontaine, who championed the shutoffs as council president in 2009, says the program saved the city over $200,000 at a fiscally critical time. The city isn’t out of the woods, but with a preliminary audit projecting a $1.2 million surplus for the city, it’s feasible to phase out what he concedes has been a rather unpopular and difficult-to-administer initiative.
“Shutting the lights off was never supposed to be a permanent situation, but it was absolutely necessary as part of our efforts to balance the budget,” says Fontaine. “From many different vantage points we are now in a position to review that decision.”
The rule of thumb is that every other street light on primary and secondary roads has been turned off, or about a third of the city’s 4,200 streetlights. Streets that normally benefit from nearby commercial lighting may have fewer streetlights on, while heavily traveled intersections remain fully lighted, in the interest of public safety, said Fontaine.
Still, it’s not uncommon to hear callers on radio talk shows blame reduced street lighting for an increase in street crime and serious automobile accidents, or to read similar comments posted on local news blogs.
Police Chief Thomas S. Carey says there is no evidence to back up the talk. Investigators have determined that the causative factors in all of the fatal car crashes this year were something other than poor lighting, including speed and alcohol.
“For the fatalities, there’s nothing to indicate the lack of light was a factor,” said Carey. “There’s nothing to indicate the lights being out was a factor in any additional crimes, either.”
Carey said there was “a little spike” in the rate of fender-benders last winter, but the data suggests icy road conditions had more to do with it than anything else.
Fontaine admits fewer lights on city streets may cause people to “feel less safe,” but he says many studies have shown that reducing streetlights does not impact crime.
The city has tried to be responsive to complaints of poor lighting, but that’s proven more difficult than initially expected. Because of the technology involved, it’s a chore just to figure out if a light people are complaining about is one the city has shut off or one that’s supposed to be on but isn’t because it’s burnt out, according to the mayor.
Fontaine said National Grid will charge the city $25 for each light it reactivates, or about $30,000. He said the city has reached a tentative agreement with National Grid to spread the payment out over a period of time so the cost will be easier for the city to manage. Also, he said new savings from personnel and the completion of repairs to City Hall’s facade will help pay for the restoration of lights.
Despite the administrative drawbacks and the upbeat fiscal prognosis, some councilors say it’s too soon to bring back the streetlights. If anything, Councilman Roger Jalette says, the city should be looking for more places to cut.
“I don’t believe we can afford to do it,” he says. “We’re way behind on too many things to start spending right now.”
As the Great Recession engulfed the nation, Woonsocket’s streetlight reduction program was hardly unique. From Santa Rosa, Calif., to Falmouth, Me., scores of communities all over the country implemented streetlight reduction programs that, in most cases, were seen as last-ditch efforts to pinch a few desperately needed pennies from municipal budgets.
Schneck recalls, “I didn’t like when we had to turn the lights off. Not one member of the council wanted to do that. Our backs were against the wall.”
David Graves, a spokesman for National Grid, said Woonsocket was one of five communities in Rhode Island that embarked on budget-minded streetlight shutoffs, though some have already turned all or some of those lights back on. Graves said he could not identify the communities because their accounts, like those of any other customer, are private.
“This really isn’t a new phenomenon,” said Graves. “We’re not surprised whenever we get a request from a town to turn off some or, in the case of smaller towns, all of their streetlights. They’re trying to make ends meet like everyone else and do whatever they think is necessary to do it.”
While Graves was unsure how long it would take to restore all the lights, city officials are expecting the process to take a while.
That’s because each unit is controlled by a sensor that deactivates the light when it detects sunlight. The lights were turned off permanently by placing an opaque, red-colored cap above the sensor, located on top of the light fixture. The process, known as red-capping, must be done manually, one utility pole at a time.

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