Augusta’s uneven streetlight fees, a problem uncorrected since consolidation two decades ago, coupled with rates not adjusted to cover new expenses, are the impetus for a possible streetlight fee increase that could be on next month’s tax bills.
The irregularities have carved a deficit in the streetlight fund and will deplete the city’s reserves by $865,572 if unaddressed this year, officials said at a Thursday work session.
Among other factors, the cost of light poles and fixtures has nearly tripled, copper wire is up 250 percent and energy prices have risen more than 15 percent over the last 20 years, while Augusta hasn’t adjusted fees to make up the difference, said John Ussery, assistant director for traffic engineering.
Augusta doesn’t charge all property owners the same amount. Those inside the pre-consolidation city limits pay an urban services tax that covers a variety of services, including streetlights. The old city never identified specific fees for services but paid them all from the urban services fund.
The method leaves low-valued properties often paying little or nothing into the system.
Outside the old city limits, the city bills for streetlights based on a property owner’s road frontage, a system Finance Director Donna Williams called “cumbersome” and sometimes unfair, such as for owners of corner lots.
Suburban street light fees run from nothing to more than $500, but almost 96 percent are less than $100 a year. More than half are less than $50, Williams said.
While Augusta has added “hundreds” of lights to the system over the years, the need for a rate increase predates the installation of lights along Riverwatch Parkway, Engineering Director Abie Ladson said.
Lights along arterial roads not bounded by homes and businesses must be paid from the general fund, meaning all property owners pay indirectly for the service.
For streetlights, electricity is the largest expense, at $4.7 million of the $5.13 million the lights are expected to cost the city this year, according to Williams’ report.
City Administrator Janice Allen Jackson called the need to adjust the fees “time sensitive” and requiring a commission vote within the next two weeks to include the change on Aug. 12 tax bills.
A streetlight fee increase could offset any tax decrease on the bills.
City officials haven’t said whether they plan to lower taxes due to growth in property values.
Williams presented several options for raising more streetlight revenue, including “mixed tactics” of a millage rate increase in the old city limits and 15 percent fee hikes elsewhere.
Commissioner Sammie Sias said he preferred going to direct billing for all customers. Williams said she preferred not embedding any service fees within millage rates.
Commissioner Ben Hasan stressed the problem was one previous commissions had “kicked down the road.”
“This is a baby we’ve inherited,” he said.
Other methods of raising streetlight revenue Williams presented were adding a $15 or $20 charge to all parcels or adding between $15 and $20 to residential parcels and $30 to $50 to commercial parcels.
Reach Susan McCord at (706) 823-3215 or firstname.lastname@example.org.