published Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

Light switch: Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke to seek new bids for streetlight program

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    A light fixture lies on the counter at Global Green Lighting.
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After months of debate over Chattanooga's $24 million streetlight replacement program, Mayor Andy Berke has scrapped a plan to go forward with Global Green Lighting and wants to reopen the bidding process.

Chief Operating Officer Jeff Cannon recommended that Berke re-bid the program to replace the city's lights -- about 700 a year -- as they burn out, hiring the company that presents the most energy efficient, cost-effective proposal. A city memo states the city will work with a vendor and city-owned EPB for a new maintenance agreement and new contract agreement going forward.

"We're going with a different system now," Berke said Monday afternoon. "If GGL is the best product at the best price, we will continue to use them, without question."

Berke accepted Cannon's plan a day before the City Council is set to review a city audit that revealed EPB had inflated maintenance and energy usage figures supplied to the city.

Though EPB says its mistakes canceled themselves out at no extra cost to the taxpayers, GGL founder Don Lepard has made the case that the utility lacks a firm grasp on the city's lighting infrastructure. As an example, he noted a recent incident in which the Emerald Valley neighborhood discovered that it had been overbilled for years for lights that didn't exist.

EPB admits that it was forced to drive over a check -- with interest -- to the neighborhood association as compensation.

"Occasionally we screw up, but our policy is if you screw up, you just fix it," said Harold DePriest, president and CEO of EPB.

Those mistakes and others are why Lepard maintains that the council should proceed with an existing contract to replace all 27,000 EPB streetlights for about $24 million, using Lepard's lights instead.

But City Council Chairman Chip Henderson said as far as he knows, the council doesn't plan to take any action at today's meeting.

Lepard, who moved his business to Chattanooga from China, said he's had enough of what he believes is politics at work with the Berke administration and EPB. After six months of government delays in buying the lights, he said if the City Council goes along with this plan, he will close his factory in town and take his business to Memphis.

"I'm extremely disappointed in this city, and I'm extremely disappointed by Andy Berke," Lepard said Monday afternoon. "I'm not going to put another nickel into this city."

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.

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    Mayor Andy Berke waits to speak to a crowd on Thursday during a public forum called "Chattanooga Forward" hosted by Mayor Berke at Rivermont Elementary School in Chattanooga.
    Photo by Doug Strickland /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

In the interim, Lepard claims 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.

Berke defended his decision and said it has nothing to do with EPB.

"My entire motivation was to provide the best product for the taxpayers," he said. "Whatever our contract is with EPB it's separate and apart from our streetlights contract."

In about two weeks, Berke said his new budget for fiscal year 2015 will be presented to the City Council and will include enough capital funding to replace about 700 lights with LED lights that range from $600 to $800 each.

Councilman Ken Smith, whose district the streetlight factory is located, said he still hopes the city can go forward with a deal with Global Green Lighting.

"I believe the jobs, economic development and millions of dollars of future energy savings are in the best interest of the taxpayers and citizens of Chattanooga," he said.

If the city went forward with Lepard's original proposal, Smith has said 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.

Staff writer Ellis Smith contributed to this article.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...

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