City DPW head to pitch plan to turn streetlights back on

City DPW head to pitch plan to turn streetlights back on

WOONSOCKET - Public Works Director Sheila McGauvran has a plan to turn on the city's 1,200 plus darkened streetlights, and although the full details of the project have not yet been revealed, the city is already seeking bids to reduce current energy costs. In the upcoming weeks, her idea for securing additional savings will be presented to the City Council and the Budget Commission.

The lights were turned off in March of 2010, before McGauvran assumed the role as head of public works, as an austerity measure. The change affected every other streetlight on the city's primary and secondary roads, with the exception of well-traveled intersections, where dark conditions would pose a hazard, and is estimated to have saved the city around $126,000 annually.

But the cost-saving decision has been far from popular.

During the first year after she was hired in early 2011, McGauvran said she received complaints about dark streets every single day.

Mayoral candidate Lisa Baldelli-Hunt has made her plan to turn Woonsocket's lights on a central theme of her campaign, telling The Breeze in early September that she would finance the change by eliminating the position of economic development director, and assuming those duties herself.

McGauvran, meanwhile, said she's been looking for a way to turn the lights back on without costing the city money "since the day I got here" and this July, she says she had a breakthrough via legislation passed by the General Assembly.

While the public works director was hesitant to reveal details to The Breeze prior to presentation before the Council, Mayor Leo Fontaine also hinted at his administration's intent to utilize a new state program at the City Council's last regular meeting in September.

The city may be looking to take advantage of the Municipal Streetlight Investment Act, a bill signed into law by Gov. Lincoln Chafee on July 15 of this year. The legislation allows municipalities to assume ownership and maintenance of their street lights from electric utility companies, compensating them for the equipment. The law also permits Rhode Island cities and towns to dim and time the lights and to purchase electricity from any provider.

The city has already issued a request for proposals from energy providers this week, seeking a possible alternative to fees from National Grid.

"We should be able to save some money through the bidding process," McGauvran said.

According to the RFP, Woonsocket will also garner potential savings on utility costs from the activation of Synagro's heat recovery system at the wastewater treatment plant and other upgrades to the Cumberland Hill Road facility, scheduled to be conducted by CH2M Hill Engineers beginning in March 2014.

"Our highest usage comes from the water and wastewater plants," McGauvran explained.

The Council was slated to officially discuss the matter at a work session last Monday, but the meeting was later cancelled. It is the second time this administration has looked to turn the lights back on.

Fontaine made public his first plan to brighten the roads in Nov. 2011, when it was widely believed the city had an operating surplus, but the mayor quickly had his hopes dashed. In December of that year, auditors looking at the School Department's accounting books revealed that the district had a ballooning deficit that would top $10 million, and trigger the installment of a state-appointed Budget Commission before the fiscal year was through.

Now, regardless of who tries to turn the lights back on, any plan would need approval from the state board that assumed control of city finances last May.

"The Budget Commission has the responsibility and authority to make the decision," said Finance Director Thomas Bruce. "It would represent an adjustment to the current year budget which would need to be approved."

Meanwhile, McGauvran said National Grid has agreed to waive the reactivation fee if the city opts to turn on the 1,261 streetlights. The city, she said, still hasn't paid the original bill for shutting them off at a cost of $25 each or $31,525.

McGauvran said complaints about the situation still come in at least once a week.