Smith: State audit warranted in street light drama

Smith: State audit warranted in street light drama

July 7th, 2014 By Robin Smith in Opinion Columns

Robin Smith

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

Over the last few months, Chattanooga's city government has heard comments, held meetingsand watched Mayor Andy Berke end a contract for technologically advanced street lights for the city.

There are not just two sides to this story.

The back and forth generated by the contract, initiated by former Mayor Ron Littlefield and approved by the City Council in 2012, is enough to give observers a severe case of whiplash. The contract with Global Green Lighting would have allocated $18 million in phases to replace 27,000 street lights with light emitting diode (LED) lights. The energy efficient lights are operated remotely via a computer cloud program.

This city government-approved purchase seemed to hit a snag when the taxpayer-funded utility, EPB, seemed to be less than excited about losing revenue from its less-efficient lights that consumed more electricity and required significantly more maintenance over time.

Then, the process became more complicated when a recall on a faulty component of the LED light was issued and it was discovered that EPB was charging the city $120 per light for installation versus the original quote for installation by Global Green of $70 per light.

All were in agreement that the "aging light infrastructure," noted in an April 2014 newspaper article, was problematic to support the new-fangled light fixtures that featured a meter on each pole, the ability to dim or turn up brightness, and the capacity to strobe in emergency situations. These features were eclipsed by the grumbling complaint by EPB that "the new lights are only 55 percent more efficient than the previous system." Yeah, just 55 percent more efficient.

As the reluctant city-owned utility participated in this process, an audit was performed by Stan Sewell, city auditor. This audit revealed a billing "error" that almost hits $5 million in potential overcharges by EPB that involve peak electricity rates being used in the billing formula.

The Chattanooga City Council seemed to have simply accepted Berke's decision to end this contract (which had originated after violence in Coolidge Park in 2011 was addressed with an installation of the LED lights. The lighting technology gave law enforcement the ability to brighten the illumination of the public space and eliminate shadows that cultivate crime). With the ongoing attempts to understand the "overbilling" by EPB, Sewell appears to continue his review while EPB pledges to provide detailed figures and specifics in its own financial analysis of this situation.

Let's pause for just a moment and ask a simple question: When has it ever been appropriate for the organization or business being examined for faulty information or questionable financial practices to be the very source of data in the determination of wrongdoing?

In plain language, is it ethical for EPB to conduct its own audit that will explain an almost $5 million "accounting error?"

One option that may be needed is to look to an office of the state of Tennessee that exists just for this purpose.

The Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury has a Division of Local Government Audit. According to its website, "This division ensures that municipalities, utility districts, housing authorities, joint ventures created by local governments, other quasi-governmental organizations, and other government-funded agencies are audited ..."

Let's invite Comptroller Justin Wilson to take a peek into this issue to ensure accuracy and to end speculation and distrust. Chattanooga deserves answers.

Robin Smith served as chairwoman of the Tennessee Republican Party from 2007 to 2009. She is a partner at the SmithWaterhouse Strategies business development and strategic planning firm and serves on Tennessee's Economic Council on Women.