SALT LAKE CITY — A small group of residents brought to light their concerns Tuesday about a proposed fee that would add a few dollars to monthly utility bills for repairs, upgrades and maintenance of area streetlights.
Residents who came forward during Tuesday's public hearing at the Salt Lake City-County Building expressed concerns about the impact to fixed-income households, copper wire theft and the implied tax increase.
The $3.73 fee being proposed by Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker would go into a street-lighting enterprise fund, generating an estimated $3.6 million to fund gradual pole and fixture replacement, as well as improve system efficiency.
Action was deferred on the proposal, though the City Council could vote on the fee as soon as next week. If passed, it would show up on utility bills in January or February.
Jay Ingleby spoke on behalf of the Glendale Community Council and west-side communities, specifically fixed-income families, saying the seemingly insignificant fee carries extra weight in a weak economy from which the area hasn't yet recovered.
Ingleby said his community had supported the previously proposed fee of roughly $2 per month, though not without complaint.
"To me, it's adding another tax to these people's income," he said. "I know a dollar seems like a small amount, but think about the people I just mentioned who are needing that $3.73 for medical costs, food, rent and personal expenses."
In a City Council work session prior to the public hearing, it was reported the proposed $2.34 fee would have generated about $2.4 million, which would have supported only streetlight maintenance.
Removing streetlight funding from property taxes lifts it from a shrinking allotment within the city's general fund, city officials said. The fee would extend to properties that now are exempt from property taxes, such as government buildings and churches. Those properties would be assessed the same $3.73 for every 75 feet of street front area that commercial properties would pay.
Implementation of the fee as currently proposed would not be accompanied by a corresponding drop in property taxes, city officials said.
The street-lighting fund would not support maintenance of privately owned lights, such as those put in place two years ago through the "private lighting program."
Ruth Cherecwich recalled concerns that surfaced in her East Bench neighborhood several years ago by those attempting to maneuver uneven sidewalks and feel safe in the dark, as well as efforts to prevent break-ins.
The association that helped put in private lights has since dissolved, and the lights are falling into disrepair, Cherecwich said Tuesday.
"They are there strictly for safety and not for beautification or decorative purposes," she said. "(The mayor's) proposal does not take into account those residents who already pay the complete operational and maintenance fees of a streetlight and would have us pay another $45 annually."
The mayor's administration estimates 1,500 streetlights, or 10 percent of the city's lights, were left dark as they burned out in order to save money.
Jeff Bair, who participated in the street-lighting committee, was the lone speaker in support of the fee during the hearing, saying he heard from residents who felt unsafe in areas with darkened lights. He said the street-lighting fee is a fair solution similar to the city's storm water program.
"Just as with lighting, all (residents) of the city benefit from that," Bair said.
Richard Starley, chairman-elect for the Capitol Hill Community Council, commented on the city's failure to mitigate theft of copper wires that is continually knocking out some street lights.
"As soon as the lights go on, the thieves know the wiring is back," Starley said. "(City officials) are not recruiting (residents) to act with you in stopping the theft issue that's going on in our city."
Katherine Gardner, Capitol Hill Community Council chairwoman, said she supported the proposed fee but worried that theft concerns aren't being addressed.
"We have rascals in our area who are supplementing their incomes by stealing those wretched little copper wires that are in there," Gardner said. "I don't know the answers. That's why we elect all of you, so find some way for us to have lights."