The lights will not be going off in Lee County.
County commissioners made it as clear as day Tuesday they don’t want street lights turned off to save money.
In fact, they said they thought they’d already given that order.
“In the budget it was discussed, but it was glossed over,” said Commissioner Tammy Hall. “It’s embarrassing to learn the lights are going off on major arterials where children are sometimes waiting.”
Public Works Director Jim Lavender said he waited Sept. 17, the night county commissioners adopted the county budget, to be told to keep the lights on.
“I expected to hear this that night,” he said. “But I’ll tell you, I’ve about run out of other ways.”
County transportation director Scott Gilbertson said that the suggestion from commissioners that he instead look into turning the lights off only during the wee hours of the morning or dim the lights proved too costly.
“It would have negated the savings in this case,” he said.
Among the roads proposed to go dark was Three Oaks Parkway and Ben Hill Griffin Parkway, both between Alico and Corkscrew roads and Bonita Beach Road between Windsor Road and Spanish Wells and between Old 41 Road and Interstate 75.
Turning off more than 2,500 lights along 15 stretches of road would have saved $420,000 this year. It would have also left 40 miles of road dark. Lights would have stayed on near intersections.
“This caught me by surprise,” Commissioner Frank Mann said. “Frankly it’s embarrassing to the county of Lee to have all those major corridors go dark.”
So they won’t. But County Manager Karen Hawes said she doesn’t know where the money to pay the power bill will come from.
“The departments have been cutting back for years,” Hawes said. “Now’s the time that the rubber is going to really have to hit the road. There’s going to be reductions in services.”
Lavender said taking the money from the Department of Transportation budget could mean less frequent canal maintenance or even downed stop signs staying down.
“We got lucky this year, but what happens if we have the big one (hurricane) next year and all the canals haven’t been maintained? Other options I think could have huge consequences.”
The lights were on a list of departmental cuts that were submitted to commissioners. Hall said commissioners may have been distracted by an acrimonious debate over much smaller budgets for neighborhood street-lighting districts.
Commissioner Brian Bigelow refused to support those budgets, which would have turned those lights off because new Florida law was thought to require a unanimous vote for property tax increases over 10 percent.
A friendly legal opinion from the Department of Revenue produced a “continued” budget hearing at which the smaller rates were approved, but the bigger street-lighting cuts remained.
“We had all that stuff on our plate and we got exhausted by the pettiness,” Hall said. “We argued about such insignificant amounts and forgot about the bigger issue.”
“I think we’re spending money in places we don’t have to spend money right now,” Bigelow said. “We don’t want do it at the expense of street lights, which is a public safety issue.”
Hawes said she’ll have to look for a place to cut $420,000 somewhere else or pull the money from dwindling reserves. Commissioners already pulled almost $70 million out of reserves.
Hawes said the money could come from almost any department, not necessarily DOT where cuts might risk public safety.