Streetlight repairĀ fee plan challenged

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- The Landrieu administration is proposing an Entergy  franchise fee increase to keep streetlights repaired, an idea that isn't sitting well with the City Council. On any given night, about 8,000 lights are out.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- The Landrieu administration is proposing an Entergy franchise fee increase to keep streetlights repaired, an idea that isn't sitting well with the City Council. On any given night, about 8,000 lights are out.

On any given night, about 8,000 of the roughly 51,000 streetlights across the city are dark. That number could increase, the Landrieu administration warns, if a new source of money for repairs isn’t found soon.

The city has proposed funding the repairs through an Entergy franchise fee increase that would tack on an additional $2 to $3 on customers’ bills and generate about $10 million a year for the fixes.

That idea isn’t sitting well with the City Council, which would have to vote on any proposed rate increase.

Right now the city is using one-time community development block grant funds to fix the lights. When that $10 million runs out at the end of the year, the repairs would stop and the existing backlog of outages would only grow, public works Director Mark Jernigan told the council’s public works committee Tuesday.

“That’s where the story stops,” he said. “If the franchise fee is approved, the story continues.”

The city took over the responsibility of streetlight repairs in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, during which time Entergy New Orleans declared bankruptcy.

Deputy Mayor Cedric Grant said the proposed fee increase would not only repair the lights but would allow for the majority of existing streetlights in the city to be replaced with LED lights, which are more expensive but last longer and cost less to operate.

Still, some council members said they have concerns about the broader lighting system — its invisible but aging infrastructure — that they said didn’t appear to be adequately addressed in the administration’s plan.

“That is just patchwork on the system,” District D Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell said. “My concern is we have a broke system. It does not make sense to me to pour this kind of money down a broke system if you don’t have a plan for replacing that system.”

Council Vice President Jackie Clarkson said that she, too, has concerns about the lighting system beyond just light bulbs, saying that strong thunderstorms and wind can knock out power to some lights.

“People are raving mad out there about lighting,” Clarkson said. “I’m not against the franchise fee or anything. I’m ready to bite the bullet; I’m ready to fall on my sword. But we must have the right plan.”

While each of the council members who attended the meeting said they’d like to explore other funding options beyond a fee increase, Council President Stacy Head and District C Councilwoman Kristin Palmer each said they’d like to also see a “sunset” provision for the possible increase.

That would reduce the fees to their previous levels once savings are realized from the more energy-efficient lights.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu pitched the idea of an increased Entergy franchise fee when he presented his proposed 2013 budget late last year.

Landrieu has said the city must find a recurring source of money for the streetlight repairs to ensure that other projects aren’t shorted and that residents get the services for which they pay.

“It’s a much bigger issue than just whether it’s a franchise fee or something else,” Landrieu said Monday, pointing out that the city has repaired 23,000 lights since he took office in 2010. “The big issue is whether or not we’re going to find sustainable sources of funding to provide to the people No. 1, what they deserve, and No. 2 what they say they need. And obviously streetlights is one of those fundamentals.”