The City Council pulled back Tuesday night from initial claims that they planned to take swift action as warranted to extend a contract with Global Green Lighting to continue a $24 million street light program.
Earlier this year, all nine members signed a letter demanding answers from Mayor Andy Berke's administration before they decided to launch a city audit to settle discrepancies between the administration, the city-owned utility company EPB and Global Green Lighting.
The goal at the end of the investigation was to introduce a resolution to extend the contract with company owner Don Lepard, said City Councilman Yusuf Hakeem, if the city audit bore out the energy cost savings projected for the city.
But Hakeem, the former council chairman, said he believes the Berke administration persuaded enough council members to scrap the plan.
"Council persons have been co-opted one by one to see things from the mayor's perspective as opposed to what's in the best interest of the community," Hakeem said after the meeting. "I don't think that's good for the council or the citizens."
Berke had already heard similar allegations. On Monday, he said the only thing he's done is talk to a few council members about the 2015 capital budget that would have to include $12 million to start the second phase of the Global Green LED light replacement project if it were to go forward. That's a third of the city's annual capital budget, he said.
"So we shouldn't talk about the capital budget?" he asked. "We know that any initiative that we start will constrain our budget. We've certainly looked at the effects any initiative has on our budget."
Chattanooga in 2013 replaced 4,400 of its 27,000 high-pressure sodium streetlights with Global Green's lights at a cost of about $6 million 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.
On Monday, a day before the City Council was set to hear Sewell's findings, Berke announced he would accept a recommendation from his staff for a new one-to-one light bulb replacement program and reopen the bidding process to any company that met the qualifications. Berke justified his decision by saying he was being a good steward of taxpayer dollars.
When Sewell presented his audit findings Tuesday afternoon, Councilman Ken Smith asked about the city's cost to go forward with Global Green Lighting.
"How long would it take to recover all the costs?" Smith asked.
The city could pay off a 15-year bond in 13 years, Sewell said, and energy savings estimated at nearly 69 percent would cover the entire cost of the bond.
Sewell's audit also revealed billing discrepancies with EPB that drove up the price of the project to replace the city's streetlights.
EBP officials handed out their own report Tuesday from an independent accountant that found that any errors on energy bills to the city - that the utility has now corrected - were more than offset by underbilling on facilities charges.
After the presentation, several council members gave accounts that differed from Hakeem's. They said the intention all along was to gather facts and then see what Berke would present in his 2015 fiscal budget for the project before making a decision how to move forward.
Newly appointed Chairman Chip Henderson said he hasn't been threatened to go along with the mayor's plan.
"Nobody is running [Lepard] out of town, I want to make that perfectly clear," Henderson said. "I haven't been threatened or promised or anything like that."
Henderson said the council does have to choose what projects to fund with a limited capital budget. With that in mind, he said he would chose paving roads over replacing lights with Global Green Lighting.
Lepard, who claims politics between Berke and EPB have clouded the City Council's judgment, stood before officials Tuesday night and asked for answers.
"I made a commitment to the council that I would move my factory from China to Chattanooga," Lepard said. "I kept my word to this council ... I've kept my obligations and more."
Brock Herron, one of Lepard's employees, then stood.
"We've proven ourselves and feel like we're being punished for that," he said.
The City Council adjourned without any response.
Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at email@example.com or 423-757-6659.