To see their fiscal way, towns cut the lights

Some residents fear rise in crime

By Matt Collette and Vivian Nereim
Globe Correspondents / August 19, 2009

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ANDOVER - Hundreds of street lights will flicker out for good this year in Andover, one of several communities across Massachusetts hunting for savings on their electric bills.

Selectmen, hoping to put a dent in a $2 million budget deficit, voted Monday to turn off lights on designated streets. Some residents worry that a darker town will lead to more crime.

“I know they have to save money, but I hate to see that light go,’’ said Jeff Hall, who has lived across the street from a light on Walnut Avenue for 37 years. “It’s going to be strange without it.’’

Andover is following the lead of several other municipalities.

Facing a cut in state aid of more than $1 million, Webster has turned off 600 of its 1,500 street lights to save $60,000, said Town Administrator John F. McAuliffe.

Milton is in the process of turning off half of its 3,000 lights to save $80,000, said Town Administrator Kevin J. Mearn, and Fitchburg is extinguishing between 50 and 60 percent of its lights to save about $200,000, said Ken Dupont, an engineer at the Public Works Department.

Municipalities evaluating similar measures include Dennis, which has identified about 830 lights that could be turned off to save $55,000, said Town Administrator Richard White, and Leominster, which is considering turning off about 100 lights to save about $20,000, said Mayor Dean J. Mazzarrella.

“Cities and towns are doing everything they can to hold on to police officers, firefighters, and teachers, and so every little bit helps,’’ said John Robertson, deputy legislative director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

“They’ve had to make a lot of really tough decisions to balance those budgets,’’ he said.

Some of the Bay State’s biggest cities, though, said they would not take such a measure to save money.

Boston is not considering turning off any street lights, said Dot Joyce, Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s spokeswoman. Neither is Somerville. “It has never come up,’’ said city spokesman Tom Champion. “Not even in this tight budget year where we cut $4 million.’’

As the debate continues in Andover about which lights to turn off, some officials say the town will save nowhere near the money it needs.

The original plan, presented by the Department of Public Works in conjunction with the Police Department, would have turned off 626 lights to save an estimated $47,000, said Public Works director Jack Petkus. But when selectmen voted Monday to consider darkening only streets with five or more lights, Petkus said, that cut the number of affected lights and projected savings nearly in half.

“Why five? Why not, four, or three, or seven? It’s an arbitrary number,’’ Petkus said. “They didn’t listen to staff, they didn’t listen to people who have studied this for five months. So now they cut their savings in half.’’

Selectman Gerald Stabile Jr., who favored turning off more lights, said Andover’s savings will be minimal unless the efforts are more extensive.

Stabile said the amendment was put forward by Selectman Brian Major, because of community concerns.

But Stabile said the original plan had already taken into account “a tremendous amount of due diligence’’ toward safety.

Major did not return calls or answer an e-mail yesterday.

“Perceived public safety issues are one thing,’’ Stabile said. “Real public safety issues are another thing.’’

Petkus said Public Works had considered a study that determined crime, accident, and vandalism rates were no higher in unlighted areas than in lighted areas.

“Some people . . . with a light in front of their house, they think that the world is going to end,’’ Petkus said. “It’s not.’’

But the concern among some in town is real.

Christine Wiggin, who lives in Haverhill but spends most of her time in Andover because her boyfriend and his family live in town, said it was unwise to turn off street lights.

“People need them,’’ she said. “Especially if they’re going to be walking in the early evening or at night.’’

Such worries are why John Pasquale, an Andover resident who said he attended Monday’s meeting, said he supported starting the program on streets with five or more lights.

Gesturing around downtown Andover yesterday, Pasquale said he thought some areas had too many lights. “It looks like Logan airport here,’’ he said.

Pasquale said that by starting small, the town could accommodate residents’ feedback before making bigger changes.

“You’ve got to try everything,’’ he said.