Missoula council members call street lights a ‘rip-off,’ approve higher 2018 bills

Ward 4 Councilman John DiBari called Missoula’s street lights a “rip-off” and refused to vote for the city’s annual street light assessment on Monday night. (Katy Spence/Missoula Current)

Calling it a “rip-off” and a waste of their and other taxpayers’ money, Missoula City Council members grumbled, balked but eventually approved a 5.8 percent increase in the city’s street light assessment for fiscal year 2018.

The increase was necessitated by a 5.8 percent increase in NorthWestern Energy rates, as approved by the Montana Public  Service Commission.

The street light assessment is a straight pass-through of those power bills. So when NorthWestern Energy rates increase, street light bills increase.

The city’s general fund pays for 10 percent of the lighting costs, while city taxpayers pick up the remaining 90 percent. The estimated cost for fiscal 2018 will be $364,047.14.

The rub?

“It’s terrible lighting,” said Councilman John DiBari, who voted against the 2018 assessment.

I frankly think this is a rip-off,” he said. “I don’t see the value in this. I pay more for my lighting district than I pay for my parks district and just a little bit under the roads district, and I don’t think we get nearly the value that we get for the parks or the roads.”

DiBari said he would move forward a referral to better understand how the City Council can address the issue of lighting in the city.

“I’m not really willing to continue the status quo at this point,” he said.

Council members Jon Wilkins and Julie Armstrong also voted against the street light assessment.

“I remember when I moved here in the late ‘70s, I almost took the chainsaw out and cut my light pole down when I saw the bill,” Wilkins said, laughing. “I still have the chainsaw.”

“I will support it because I’m not interested in turning the lights off, so to speak, but it’s a total rip-off,” said Councilwoman Emily Bentley. “And I would love to get a better deal.”

About six years ago, there was a study done for the City Council on the city’s lighting infrastructure, which is owned by NorthWestern Energy, Bentley said.

That infrastructure has been paid for “I don’t know how many times over,” said DiBari, and it is extremely inadequate.

Councilman Bryan von Lossberg said a small group of homeowners in Ward 1 did successfully petition NorthWestern Energy to be removed from their street lighting district, but it was an arduous process.

The city might be able to learn something from those homeowners that would be effective on a larger scale, he suggested.

Mayor John Engen said city staff member Chase Jones is working to understand Missoula’s street lighting system, “and I actually have some high hopes there are some things that we can do.”

In the meantime, Engen said, the city is working incrementally with the Missoula Parking Commission on a performance contract that would “not only upgrade that lighting but save energy over time. And I hope that we can consider a broader program in the relatively near future.”

The assessment was approved by a vote of 8-3. Councilman Jordan Hess was absent.