Light it up: Chattanooga needs to make good on its promise

Light it up: Chattanooga needs to make good on its promise

May 3rd, 2014 in Opinion Times

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Read the Times Free Press story on April 26: "Auditor: EPB partially at fault for green lighting fiasco."

Document: Chattanooga streetlight replacement audit

Chattanooga internal auditor Stan Sewell found that charges from EPB added significant costs to the city's streetlight replacement program.

Mayor Andy Berke's administration has done a pretty good job over the past year of making a clean sweep in city government, but the city officials have one more stop to make: the city-owned and board-operated EPB.

And while Berke and his young whipper-snappers are at it, they need to put a bit more effort into making Chattanooga government not just more dollar efficient but also more energy efficient.

One needs look no further than the stalled installation of "smart lights" -- LED street lights -- in Chattanooga.

This excerpt from a recent Times Free Press report sums up the problem: "Asked by the City Council to sort out the protracted kerfuffle among EPB, Global Green Lighting and Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's administration, (City Auditor Stan) Sewell found that fuzzy maintenance figures, millions of dollars in ongoing charges and a $5 million 'billing discrepancy' introduced by EPB were the primary drivers behind the high price of replacing the city's 26,551 streetlights."

Originally, the replacement of all of Chattanooga's high-pressure sodium streetlights with new LED bulbs was priced at $18 million. At that price, the deal would have saved taxpayers millions of dollars over the long run.

The city signed a contract with Global Green to replace about a third of Chattanooga's street lights for about $6 million. The council would have the option in coming years to approve replacement of the final two thirds.

That was before administration officials, operating in part from faulty EPB figures, added millions more in charges to the light replacement cost projections and energy use estimates, including an ongoing EPB maintenance fee and a "stranded assets" fee for lights taken down before the end of their useful lives, not to mention standard add-ons like interest and installation charges.

Those costs, coupled with a claim from EPB that the lights were unreliable, caused the city to ask Global Green for an expensive 15-year warranty on the lights, resulting in a total $27.5 million price tag.

But Global Green fought back, showing council members the company's own figures from the first 4,400 lights installed. Those lights "phone home" with reports about their status, efficiency and usage to Global Green's monitoring office. The conflicting claims prompted the council to ask Sewell to sort it out.

Sewell's audit found that maintenance figures reported by EPB -- which suggested that 20 percent of the new lights had required some type of repair or replacement -- were incorrect. EPB's data included duplicate reports, activation jobs, pole resets and other minor work orders. The real number of faulty lights. was much lower.

Global Green was also partially vindicated on its lights' energy savings. EPB's estimate -- again made on faulty EPB inventories and monitoring -- was 60 percent. Sewell found the actual figure will come closer to 68.8 percent.

Here's the bottom line. The new lights, according to Sewell, would cut the city's use of street light power by nearly 70 percent, and the lights -- warranted for 13 years but expected to last significantly longer than that -- would pay for themselves in 13.2 years. What other city service pays for itself ever, let alone in 13 years?

EPB would lose revenue on maintenance, and TVA would lose power sales. Chattanooga would save money in the long run and reduce its carbon footprint. That's savings and cleaner air and a hedge on climate change for Chattanoogans, in addition to safer street lights that police can control from their cars. The lighting connections can also be used for warning systems, air monitors and security cameras. The possibilities are only just beginning to be clear.

The decision for Chattanooga is one of capital expenditure and image. Another $12 million to replace all the lights is a big chunk out of the city's roughly $30 million capital improvements budget.

The city, touting its commitment to being "sustainable," in 2012 gave Global Green owner Don Lepard a handshake promise to make the remaining light replacements, and Lepard moved his light making factory from China to Chattanooga, first employing about 60 people and expecting to employ 250 as the city finished its project.

With the project stalled, Lepard has 5,000 lights in inventory and 60 laid-off workers.

Chattanooga is run by smart people, these days. Surely they can find a way to honor their predecessors' commitment, save our dollars, save our energy, save our ozone and straighten out EPB. And, by the way, what ever happened to making city offices more energy efficient?