The city spends about $35,000 per year for street lights that aren’t producing light, according to a new audit out of City Hall.
The audit of the street light system that is owned and operated by Westar Energy has city leaders vowing to ask questions of the Topeka-based utility.
“It is clear that we need to substantially improve our relationship with Westar, and improve the performance of our street lighting system in the community,” City Manager David Corliss said.
The new report by City Auditor Michael Eglinski examines the 3,500 lights that line the city’s streets. The city pays Westar Energy about $500,000 per year to own, maintain and power the street lights.
But the audit suggested the city should take a more active role in managing the system — or perhaps should even buy the system — to ensure residents are getting the best bulb for their buck, so to speak.
Among the findings:
• At any given time, about 7 percent of the city’s street lights have either burnt-out bulbs or are not functioning properly. The city is charged for those lights even when they are not working because the city’s bill is figured based on a per-light formula, not on actual electricity usage measured by a meter. Eglinski estimated that the city pays about $35,000 for lights that aren’t working.
• The amount of electricity that Westar estimates each light uses is higher than what many other electric companies estimate for similar street lights. Westar estimates a standard street light uses 74 kilowatt hours per month. Eglinski examined the energy estimates used by five other electric companies and found Westar was the highest of the group. The average for the other five utilities was 62 kilowatt hours per month. Eglinski estimates the city would have saved about $12,000 per year, if Westar’s energy usage estimate was closer to the average.
A Westar spokesman said the utility would work with the city to resolve any issues. Chad Luce, customer and community relations manager for the company, said Westar plans to place a meter on one of the city street lights to get a measure of actual energy used.
“We want to do what is fair,” Luce said. “But we think our numbers are correct, and the other utilities have underestimated it, for whatever reason.”
Luce said he did not dispute Eglinski’s estimate that about 7 percent of street lights may be out at any given moment. But Luce said it will take help from the community to lower that number because Westar does not have the staff resources to check the lights on every street on a regular basis. Instead, the company relies heavily on the city or residents reporting outages.
“We do stand behind our record of fixing problems that are reported to us in a timely manner,” Luce said.
The audit did conclude that Westar about 80 percent of the time repaired problems within three days of the problems being found.
The report, though, suggests that the city should examine the option of buying the system from Westar to gain better control of it.
Eglinski said several cities are buying systems from utility companies in an effort to reduce maintenance and management fees that they pay a utility system. The cities still must pay the utilities for the electricity usage.
Eglinski said preliminary data indicates many cities — nearby, Lenexa has bought much of its system — are saving between 20 percent to 50 percent per year. In Lawrence’s case, savings could be about $150,000 annually, Eglinski estimates.
But buying the system could take extended negotiations with Westar. Luce said the company was open to a discussion, but Westar has never sold a system to a city.
If the city doesn’t pursue a purchase, Eglinski said the city should at least take steps to become more involved in monitoring the system. For example, the city does not maintain an inventory of street lights, which is necessary to check whether Westar is accurately billing the city.
The city also may want to lobby the Kansas Corporation Commission to review street light rates. The KCC must approve any rate Westar charges. The rates Westar charges to Lawrence are the same rates the utility charges to about 200 other communities throughout the state.
Some individuals also may have a stake in the outcome. The street light tariff also sets rates for “private area lights” — such as a solitary security light at a farm that does not have a meter. Eglinski found Westar uses an energy usage number for those lights that are much higher than what other companies charge.
Commissioners are scheduled to discuss the audit at their 6:35 p.m. meeting on Tuesday at City Hall, Sixth and Massachusetts streets.