FALMOUTH – A battle over taxes is showing how a town’s role to provide basic services can clash with a voter-driven mandate to control costs.

Stuck in the middle is Randy Davis, Falmouth’s budget-purchasing director, who’s in charge of a streetlight-reduction program that has targeted 174 of Falmouth’s 614 streetlights.

The program, expected to save the town $20,000 a year, is a result of the 2010-11 budget, approved recently by the Town Council. The $34.9 million budget doesn’t include a tax increase.

To make the budget work, cuts being considered include 174 streetlights.

“We’re trying to keep tax dollars down, and this is the start of the process,” said Davis, who began posting notices on targeted streetlights in early May. The notices encourage residents to call or write Davis with their concerns.

He has heard from about 60 residents. Many of them will attend a public hearing on the program at 7 p.m. Monday at Town Hall.

“We’ve heard all sorts of concerns, and they are valid concerns,” said Davis, who added that the dialogue has been cordial. “I haven’t been hung in effigy too many times. It’s been civil.”

Roger Clement noticed the green sign announcing that the light in front of his house on Payson Road was targeted for removal. He called the town right away. His primary concern was public safety. He lives in a high-density neighborhood with lots of pedestrians and cars, and no sidewalks.

“I consider where we live kind of the old-fashioned neighborhood, where houses are close together, most garages are one-car garages and kids spend a lot of time playing outside. The street almost becomes an extension of the yard,” Clement said.

To remove a light would put at risk the kids who play in the neighborhood, and older residents who walk in the street, he said.

Clement also has a more philosophical objection: If towns start cutting such basic services as streetlights, what’s next?

“Streetlights are kind of a core fundamental service that municipalities should provide. Streetlights are one of the first things that municipalities provide when they get formed. And for that reason, it should be one of the last to be cut,” Clement said.

“I appreciate that we should look at every area of our town budget and see what could be trimmed,” he said, “but where there is a legitimate need for a streetlight, it should not be cut.”

Monday’s hearing will give residents a chance to state their case for keeping a particular light. Davis has provided forms for people to fill out if they cannot attend the meeting.

There are 174 lights on the list, but Davis said he can achieve the savings he needs by eliminating about 135.

The town manager and the police chief helped Davis draw up the list of lights. They went out together to assess every light in town. Any light over an intersection or any light that contributes to public safety was spared, as were lights that were installed as part of any new development in town.

As a result, most of the lights targeted for removal are in the older sections of Falmouth — along the flats in the Martin’s Point section of town, and along Foreside Road.

The streetlight issue is becoming common. South Portland recently eliminated more than 100 lights, and other cities and towns are looking at cutting lights to save money. In Falmouth, it costs about $150 a year to operate a single light.

Davis said, “People are passionate about it. No question, they like their streetlights. But I’ve also heard from other folks who said, ‘Bravo, take my light.’ So we’ve heard from both sides.”

If nothing else, Clement said he is pleased with how Falmouth has made it easy for residents to express themselves. He gives the town high marks for its handling of the issue, “by putting signs on the streetlights and welcoming people to call for input and allowing people to express their views publicly. It’s an excellent way to run the process. The town, thus far, has been very fair and open.”

 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

[email protected]