There’s finally an end in sight to the city’s streetlight fight, as administration officials hit a self-imposed May 10 deadline to resolve the impasse over Chattanooga’s $24 million streetlight replacement program.
Chief operating officer Jeff Cannon today will present his recommendations to Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, just three days before the City Council is scheduled to take up debate on the topic.
Officials may consider a compromise between doing the project all at once and not doing it at all, said Chip Henderson, chairman of the City Council. Henderson is considering replacing the current lights as they go out — roughly 1,000 lights per year — rather than replacing them en masse at a multimillion-dollar cost.
Private debates over the merits of the program, which just last year was heralded by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam as a boon for jobs and entrepreneurship, spilled into the public domain in April. Since then, the man behind the radio-controlled LED lights has threatened to move to Memphis over nearly six months of government delays in buying the lights.
Those delays have cost taxpayers $716,000 in lost energy savings and have cost the former employees of Global Green Lighting nearly $900,000 in lost wages, said company founder Don Lepard.
“[Chattanooga Mayor Andy] Berke has kicked the can down the road now three times,” Lepard said.
City officials, who have struggled to resolve conflicting data from Global Green Lighting and EPB, say the mayor has had little direct involvement in the process.
Lepard is hoping that this time, the administration will sign off on the remainder of its contract. But he’s also hedging his bets.
The one-time UTC football star has already signed off on an agreement with Memphis officials to open a factory there if that city will replace its 82,000 high-pressure sodium lights with his more energy-efficient LED models.
Chattanooga in 2013 replaced 4,400 of its 27,000 high-pressure sodium streetlights with Global Green’s lights, but delayed further purchases after energy bill discrepancies and inflated maintenance figures supplied by EPB impaired the city’s analysis and forced City Auditor Stan Sewell to step in to sort out the numbers.
Lepard wonders whether the Berke administration, which ordered city-owned EPB to get involved and thus placed it in the position of installing and monitoring lights for a competitor, knowingly allowed the program to unravel.
“I can justify what EPB did, because we’re a competitor to EPB. But I can’t understand why the mayor relied on EPB for his evaluation,” Lepard said. “The question is, were they relying on EPB to give them the information to stop this?”
But Jeff Cannon, the mayor’s chief operating officer and former executive director of Green Spaces, said the mayor had no direct involvement in the project. He said the city simply got bogged down when the return on investment didn’t add up to Lepard’s original claims of seven years.
“My thought going into it was that we were going to be able to crunch these numbers and come up with an awesome program that reduces our carbon footprint and saves taxpayers dollars,” Cannon said.
Later in the process, he said, “we realized the possibility of both of those things might not be true because of the way that the project was rolled out.”
But City Councilman Ken Smith isn’t sure that return on investment should be the main consideration. Few city initiatives ever offer any type of direct payback, which is why taxpayers — rather than private industry — end up paving streets, picking up garbage and putting out fires, he said.
In this case, the city can pay off a 15-year bond to pay for the lights in just 13 years, using the power savings to finance the purchase, he said.
“The savings are paying for themselves. It’s lowering expenses as opposed to increasing revenues,” Smith said. “When you tack on the public safety aspects, and the idea that going green and being more efficient gives you millions of dollars in savings beyond those first 13 years, that’s why it seemed like a no-brainer.”
Even more confusing to Smith, in whose district the streetlight factory is located, is why an initiative that spurs economic development is being slow-walked after Berke claimed in his State of the City address that jobs creation was one of his top priorities.
“This is innovation, economic development, entrepreneurship, and at one point Don had 60 percent retired military on his employment force,” Smith said. “All the things I heard discussed in the state of the city are occurring right there in that one factory.”
Council members will question the city auditor about the streetlight replacement program on Tuesday.
Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at 423-757-6315 or firstname.lastname@example.org with tips and documents.
Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...