For many towns looking to trim their budgets, street lights are an easy target. In Concord, for instance, officials are in the process of shutting off a third of the town’s overhead lamps, mostly on side streets and rural roads. But since some residents have offered to pay for street lights themselves, Concord is letting them pony up — for $17 per month per light.
So far, only a handful of residents have paid, but to chalk that up to an appreciation of the dark night sky — or even a spirit of energy conservation — is to miss the point. Street lights aren’t frills; they’re an essential service in a community filled with dog walkers, bicycle riders, and motorists. Concord is considering investing in a “smart grid’’ fiber optics program that would allow the town more flexibility in controlling all of its lights. Until it makes that wise move, street lamps shouldn’t be subject to the generosity of a few citizens, any more than fixing potholes should be.
The more town officials rely on donations to temper budget cuts, the less likely they are to make the tougher structural choices that lead to responsible planning. Shutting lights in Concord will save a mere $35,000 per year out of a $25 million budget, and won’t fix the troubles that are busting municipal budgets across the state: duplicative functions in neighboring communities; outsized health and pension benefits that could stand for modest trims. If town officials, in Concord and beyond, displayed more political courage, they wouldn’t have to shut lights off in the first place.