By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma County supervisors Tuesday unanimously backed a proposal to consolidate 19 of 24 county lighting districts, but split over the key issue of what to do with their $5.6 million in accrued cash.
Public works officials had proposed pooling those resources to help at least eight smaller, struggling districts avoid looming shortfalls and enable a $5 million network-wide upgrade to energy efficient LED lights.
Savings were then to be used to reclaim road money — up to $550,000 annually — that has been diverted for years to pay for 355 street and safety lights, about 10 percent of the county’s total network of 3,670 lights.
But board members Valerie Brown and Efren Carrillo voiced strong opposition to pooling the accrued cash, defending the flush reserves of districts they represent.
Together, the two supervisors represent four districts — Valley of the Moon, Guerneville, Monte Rio and Rio Nido — with more than $4 million in accrued cash, nearly three quarters of the total. Those districts also operate 2,045 lights, 83 percent of those operated by the 19 districts and 56 percent of the countywide total.
The resources of smaller districts across the county — some of them with only one light — pale in comparison. Many now face shortfalls because of their steeper decline in property tax revenue and rising energy costs.
But Brown and Carrillo argued that pooling the current balances of their districts with struggling ones was unfair and could compound infrastructure funding woes caused by the demise of redevelopment.
“You have a lighting district with a boundary line around it,” Brown said. “I do not know how you tell those people in that lighting district that the money that is now sitting in a revenue base and has not been spent but could be will now no longer be theirs.”
Public works officials said pooling the cash would not impact current or planned service. They also argued that the larger districts had built reserves they would never be able to use.
Supervisors Shirlee Zane and David Rabbitt voiced tentative support for the pooling proposal. They represent a few of the smaller districts that would have benefited from it.
The strongest backing came from Supervisor Mike McGuire, who represents the Airport-Larkfield-Wikiup Lighting District. He called it the “canary in the coal mine,” under the most imminent threat of shortfall.
But his arguments and the assurances of public works officials were not enough to win over the two skeptical supervisors or several audience members critical of the pooling proposal.
Rio Nido resident John Uniack, who is active on lower Russian River community issues, worried it would put river lighting districts at the back of the line for funding priorities.
Carrillo echoed those concerns. “I’m not sold on it,” he said.
McGuire broke the deadlock with a compromise that won unanimous board support. It will leave the $5.6 million for use in the individual districts where it has accrued. For the Valley of the Moon that amount is $2.3 million; for Guerneville it is over $1 million.
In the near-term, it will limit the LED upgrade to the larger, flush districts, reducing the projected energy savings and the amount of money that can be redirected to road upkeep. County officials had originally pegged that savings at $200,000 in five years. They did not have a revised estimate Tuesday.
Going forward, the board agreed to pool future lighting district revenue, including about $700,000 from the general countywide property tax levy that now goes to the 19 districts.
The districts were authorized by state legislation and some date back to the 1940s. They will be dissolved and combined into an existing county service area that includes the five other lighting districts formed since the 1970s under a different tax arrangement.
Voters in those newer districts, including the Airport-Larkfield-Wikiup district, agreed to tax themselves to support lighting services. They face shortfalls in part because tax assessments have not been raised in years. Airport-Larkfield-Wikiup voters turned down an increase last year.
In the coming months the county plans to ask voters in the five newer districts if they they wish to dissolve their individual taxing entities and join the other 19 districts funded by the general property tax levy.
In the meantime, Tuesday’s action would avail them of the future pooled revenue. Public works officials said they expect the amount to be enough to ward off lighting deficits countywide.