Straight from the Mayor: Street Light Districts, end of LCEC contract

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A proposed creation of a streetlight district and the upcoming end of the 30 year contract between the City of Cape Coral and Lee County Electrict Cooperative have created an interesting amount of buzz among Cape Coral citizens.

In this month's Straight from the Mayor, Cape Coral Mayor Marni Sawicki shares her thoughts and views on these two subjects.

 

Let’s start with the recent proposal of implementing streetlight districts in Cape Coral. Why does the city need streetlight districts?

It is a way to fund the need for streetlights. As a city, we currently do not have the money to meet the numerous requests we receive about installing street lights in areas throughout the city.

We asked staff to look for other alternatives since we do not have the money to fund additional street lights at this time.

Just to give you some numbers, in our General Fund we spend $2.6 million annually. That is since 2009. That is just for what we currently have, which is about 14,600 street lights in Cape Coral.

Knowing that, if you add another 100 street lights per year for the next 10 years we are looking at adding another $2.5 million in that expense to our General Fund budget.

 

Are you saying the annual street lighting expense would go from $2.6 million to over $5 million annually if that were the case?

Correct. At this stage that is not doable. We have not recovered enough to put that kind of money into street lights.

What we did or the Transportation Advisory Committee (TAC) asked city staff to look at was other alternatives. Because we have had a lot of people asking for street lights. We felt it was best at least to get some options, and one of those options was establishing streetlight districts.

 

Can you explain exactly what a streetlight district is?

It is where you zone out your city. You can do it in a number of ways. For example, Port St. Lucie has it zoned out by streets. You can do it by streets, neighborhoods, larger areas, etc.

Those who are in the deemed zones would determine how many streetlights they want. Then they would vote on them and if it is voted to install them, those living in that district will be assessed the cost for the installation of the streetlights and maintenance. That would be added to their taxes only for those specific lights.

What it does allow, is for those that don’t want them to not have them installed or pay for them. But, for those groups or neighborhoods that want them, they can pay for them and have them installed.

If these streetlight districts were established, how would it work for those areas that already have streetlights installed?

I don’t know that we have addressed that at this point. My thought is once we did it people would pay for the streetlights located in their district whether they were already there or going to be installed. However, I am not sure that is the way it would work. We haven’t got that far with this yet.

 

Streetlight districts is not a new idea. It has actually been around for quite some time and is popular in other municipalities. What can you tell us about other streelight districts?

Yes, as a matter of fact, there are 54 taxing authorities in Lee County and 34 of them have streetlight districts.

In other areas, there are cities like Port St. Lucie, Safety Harbor, Newport Richey that have been doing this for years and it has worked for their citizens.

 

What would you say to those that say this is just another tax added to the residents of the city, much like the recent Public Service Tax and Fire Service Assessment?

For me, this is different than the two you just mentioned. In fact, I actually think this should go to a ballot and be decided by the citizens of the city. I think if you polled the council, none of us are looking to put this in this year or the next. I would be much more comfortable putting this on the ballot and letting the people decide whether they want this or not.

However, I can tell without this type of program, the answer to any requests for additional streetlights will be no. We just don’t have the money to afford that at this time.

Will it be next year before we can begin adding streetlights, it might be, we don’t know. We have to get a handle on where our revenue is coming from and how much we are going to have. With the Fire Service Assessment decision still hanging out there, we just don’t know what the financial picture will be for the next few years until that is decided.

 

You spoke of putting this on the ballot. Why put this on the ballot when the Public Service Tax and Fire Service Assessment were not. Or, why did you not put the PST or FSA on the ballot when you would be willing to do that for this assessment?

This is one of those that we all agree that part of the services the government should provide is lighting. But, I am more than willing to wait and not tax our residents for it and letting it work itself out.

However, there is a growing request for street lights. And, if that is the case and we cannot financially provide that within the next two years, then I have no problem telling the people if you want this and cannot wait, then here you go, we are going to put it on the ballot and let you decide if this is something you are willing to pay for.

 

You touched on it earlier, but, it seems that if a streetlight district is not created or something to that effect, additional street lights throughout the city will not be installed in the near future. But, what about the distant future?

That’s correct. But, it is not something we are all saying we are never going to cover. It is just a matter of when we will be able to do it.

 

Is there any timeline that you would like to see this implemented?

We were looking at June and July to develop an assessment roll, if we had moved forward with it at a recent meeting. The final resolution would have been in August with the assessment going on the tax roll in September.

 

But that didn’t happen, and the idea didn’t move forward. So, what is the next step?

The next step is to continue to do the budget. Continue to try and find extra funds that we may be able to allocate toward new street lights. Then, most likely we will have an election before we get to funding streetlights.

 

Then there is no plans to move forward with this proposal at this point?

Correct, it is something I’m sure we will have continuing discussions about, but no firm plans to move forward right now.

 

Taking a look at the lack of streetlights at bus stops. There are 1,247 bus stops across the city. Of those, 727 do not have streetlights. Many feel that is a safety issue. Without this program you just spoke of, what is the city going to do to rectify that situation?

I don’t have an answer for that right now. I can tell you there is not one council member sitting up there that does not see the need for that to be fixed. Council Member Rick Williams has picked up where former Council Member Kevin McGrail left off in regards of working with the school district to help solve that problem. Council Member Williams is as passionate as former Council Member McGrail when it comes to streetlights, which you know is saying something.

The problem becomes we have such a need where do they go in at. If we only have money for 10 street lights, where do they go?

One issue we have, is the bus stops are continually changing. If we were to begin installing streetlights at bus stops, we would want to ensure those stops would stay there.

Having kids, it concerns me when my kids have to wait at the bus stop. I make them wait in the car with me if there are no streetlights available.

 

Switching gears, recently, the city began talking about the contract with Lee County Electric Cooperative (LCEC) which expires in 2016. Where is the city currently at with the relationship with LCEC?

We are currently in a 30 year agreement with them that as you said, expires in 2016. We are in the process of looking at the different aspects of our contract with them to determine that our residents and businesses are getting the best deal.

 

Interestingly, this is the first time in recent memory that the contract has been discussed. Why is that?

I am not sure. The funny thing is we could have been negotiating with them any time up to this point because our contract calls for a review by the city every 10 years. This is something the city has never taken advantage of, and now we want to really look at the different facets of the contract and determine what is best for all concerned.

At this point, just as you would with any business we should review the status of a contract. You hear us on the dais asking city staff if certain projects were put out to bid or received Requests for Proposals, etc. That is with projects or contracts much smaller than the one we have with LCEC.

We are talking a contract we have been in for 30 years and have received the same rate that we started with back in the 1980’s.

We need to do due diligence and look at every alternative and option we have available. We need to see what value we as a city is getting for its dollar. Is it cheaper if we had our own? If we did, how much would it cost and what is all involved?

That is just part of looking at the overall picture of all the alternatives, and making sure we have done our due diligence.

 

When it comes to the city’s contract with LCEC, what do you see as negotiable in the terms of what they provide?

We are not sure. That is why we assembled the team that was talked about at a recent meeting. It is their task to determine what parts are negotiable. There may be things that we say we love about LCEC and we would keep them. There may be things where we may be able to receive additional credits for such as alternative energy, and other initiatives.

 

So, then this task force will have the authority to look at every aspect of the contract, as well as every alternative available?

Absolutely, we have to look at all the avenues. That is why we approved the spending of $24,000 to initiate a study that will give us those answers. In fact, the people that are doing the study are people who have been involved in this type of industry for many years. They worked with Orlando, and Winter Haven, among other municipalities. They will be able to provide us a clear picture on what we are receiving and where we could do better.

Even their preliminary numbers are showing that LCEC is not the highest, but they are also not the lowest.

Being that LCEC does not produce electricity, it may be cheaper for us to go directly to the source. At the same time, they are a co-op and we get some money back. We all have ownership in it. Again, we have to look at all sides.

 

Then it is not just about figuring out if the city should become its own electric municipality?

As I said before, it is about doing the due diligence. It has nothing to do with us wanting to take on more power or be the big government taking over utilities. It is more about let’s make sure we have covered the bases and that when we go into negotiations we know what we are negotiating for.

It is about exploring every option from a to z. I would say the representative for LCEC that works with our government has been nothing but accommodating. Whenever there are complaints and concerns, they are addressed. It isn’t one particular thing like customer service that has us saying we need to look at the contract.

 

You also suggested at a recent meeting you want to put two residents on the task force as well. What made you decide to bring that request forward?

There are people out there who continuously write on the blogs about alternative energy. Those individuals that have that knowledge and that expertise, I personally encourage them to come forward and be part of that task force. Their knowledge could be extremely valuable in this process.

 

Speaking of becoming an electric municipality, what is involved with Cape Coral becoming its own electric municipality, and where do you feel the city would go with that?

We don’t have a clue right now what direction we would take. That is why we are conducting the study. I hear all the time the city can’t get the water right or the sewer right, and why would we want to take on the added responsibility of electric.

To answer that question, we would have to know a great deal about that and have a high level of comfort that we could not only do that, but do it well, before we decided to move in that direction.

Orlando, Winter Haven, are bringing in about $5 million in revenue with electric. But, they have been doing it for a long time. Infrastructure is 60% of the cost and that comes in the front. But, once you pay that off it becomes much cheaper way of doing things.

Right now, with LCEC it is just a fixed cost of doing business.

Again, if we don’t look at it and the options and things we want to negotiate into that contract we are not doing our residents any benefit.

 

What about to those who says this is a case of "big government” expanding its reach?

It does. I will say I am not for big government being involved in what we do unless it makes sense and we can do it on a smaller scale. I think when you get to the federal level those types of things becomes a black hole. But, on the municipal level we have citizens that watch us, checks and balances. Trust me if we were doing something wrong we would hear about it loud and clear.

In that respect, I don’t think you can compare the two. It is not on the same level.

 

What have you heard from citizens regarding LCEC and the service they provide?

I would say the representative for LCEC that works with our government has been nothing but accommodating. Whenever there are complaints and concerns, they are addressed. It isn’t one particular thing like customer service that has us saying we need to look at the contract.

On the other hand, I have heard a lot of customer complaints regarding the amount LCEC takes as a deposit if a person has ever been late with a bill or never had electric in their name. Or a hard shut off when the bill isn’t paid. When the economy was down and people were finding it hard to pay their full bill it became a real issue for them and it is something I have heard over and over in regard to the level of service they receive from LCEC.

 

To sum up and clear up any confusion, can you summarize what the city is doing in regard to the contract?

I would call it more of a market evaluation then we are moving to take over our own electric utilities. We don’t know where this will lead, but we certainly know by the end of this process we will know much more than we do today.

That knowledge will allow us to make the best decision for our city and citizens.