Originally created 11/29/03

Some cities are skipping holiday lights because money is short



TRENTON, N.J. -- Joe Pisapia fondly remembers the decade-old community tradition of kicking off the holiday season on the Friday after Thanksgiving with a round of festivities.

Some years thousands would gather in the northern New Jersey town of Clark to watch the lighting of a 40-foot evergreen tree and a menorah that stretched more than six feet wide, and the arrival of Santa Claus.

But this year, Pisapia put up a sign: "Tree and Menorah Lighting Ceremony Canceled This Year Due to Lack of Community Support."

He and other residents in the town of 15,000 who organized the event weren't able to raise the $8,000 needed to pay for electricity and other costs, in part because corporate donations were down.

"Everyplace I've gone in the last week or so it's been the main topic of conversation throughout the town," Pisapia said.

Clark is just one of a number of communities nationwide going without holiday decorations this year because municipalities can't afford them and donations are down.

Many cities are experiencing their worst fiscal conditions since the recession of the early 1980s, said Chris Hoene, a research manager with the National League of Cities.

"You've got revenue pressures, you've got spending pressures and the result is cities are being forced to cut back to cover revenue expenditure shortfalls," Hoene said. "The way they're doing that is by cutting back services in areas that are not public safety related."

For example, the City Council in Mesa, Ariz., this year eliminated the nearly $150,000 expense of buying and hanging some 500,000 lights in the trees along a mile-long stretch of Main Street.

Communities can't stop maintaining streets, paying employees or offering services to the needy, Hoene said. "I think most people realize it's a pretty rational decision to make," he said of holiday cutbacks.

New benefactors have stepped forward to take up the slack in some communities.

After Arlington, Texas, cut funds for its official tree-lighting ceremony, the local Fielder House Museum moved its annual tree lighting event to the night when the city's celebration used to be held.

"We're delighted that we can give the city a tree lighting ceremony and help usher in the season," said Nancy Bennett, a volunteer curator at the museum, which houses the Arlington Historical Society.

And in Livonia, Mich., the cable company Bright House Networks is restoring lighting to the City Hall section of the municipal complex this year. The company pledged up to $25,000, about one-third of what was deleted from the municipal budget.

Other efforts to keep the bulbs glowing are more grass roots.

After the Green Bay, Wis., suburb of Ashwaubenon couldn't afford to replace fading holiday lights last winter, a "Light up for the Holidays" committee kicked off a campaign to raise $8,000 to light part of the community this year.

Organizers got a donation from the Green Bay Packers, but most of the funds came from individuals who chipped in $75 to $100 a piece, said Judy Schroeder, who chaired the committee.

In Clark, Pisapia hopes a year without lights will rally his community to make similar donations for next season.

"We've been hearing from the people who are a little upset that it's not taking place this year and didn't realize that their help would have been appreciated," he said.