Shirley may soon get darker at night.
In an effort to help bridge a $600,000 municipal budget gap, town leaders are turning off the lights. At least some of them, anyway.
Last month, selectmen ordered 103 light bulbs removed from the Town Hall. Now they are considering turning off some of the street lights in this largely rural community, hoping to save a few thousand dollars in electricity bills.
On Thursday night, the town’s fire chief, police chief, and public works director plan to drive together along every town street – stopping under each street light to imagine how dark the place would be without the illumination. (They cannot actually switch off the lights during the trial run.)
Public Works director Joseph Lynch estimates there are approximately 80 miles of roads in Shirley, a town of about 7,700 – and 267 street lights, according to National Grid, the electricity delivery company.
Selectmen chairman Lee “Chip” Guercio said that turning off selected street lights was his idea, and that he had asked the public safety team and the DPW to recommend 50 lights to shut off.
“If they had to shut off 50, which 50 would they shut off?” he said, explaining that the cost of electricity has gone up significantly. “That’s what happens: Prices go up, people start cutting back. You cut down at home, and the town has to cut down, too.”
The town appropriated $28,000 this year to light the streets, but with three months of the fiscal year left, there is now only $4,000 remaining in the street-light budget, according to Kathleen Rocco, the assistant town administrator. The town’s total annual budget is approximately $14 million, she said.
This will not be the first time Shirley has turned off its street lights. In 1996, the town turned off a quarter of its street lamps – 109 out of 420, according to Police Chief Paul Thibodeau.
There is now just one light per approximately 29 residents.
Although he has not noticed an increase in crime or car accidents, Thibodeau said, many residents have complained.
Guercio said some residents have even bought their own street lighting.
On Thursday night, when determining which lights could be turned off, Thibodeau said he will look for lights that are away from intersections and not directly in front of someone’s house – or places where there are two street lights in a row.
However, he said there are not too many locations fitting that criteria left in Shirley.
“One of my main concerns has to do with pedestrians,” he said. “If someone is jogging in the area, if it’s dark, it could be hazardous.”
Lynch said the town is already too dark on some nights – especially when his crew is out plowing the streets. “During snowstorms, when we’re out, my initial opinion is we do not have enough street lights right now,” he said. “There are areas that are not bright enough.”
Deborah Drew, a spokeswoman for National Grid, said there are other communities in Massachusetts that are also turning off the lights, including Winchendon.
“It’s been happening for some time,” she said.
Residential and business customers can individually lease or adopt a street light that has been identified for shutoff by a city or a town, she said.
Meanwhile, Shirley’s public schools have dealt with rising electricity costs in their own way.
School business manager Evan Katz said the elementary school, for example, cut its electricity use by about a quarter (or about $1,500 per month) by replacing old lamps with energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs in December. The bulbs use fewer watts, but emit as much or even more light, he said.
The middle school is also seeing significant electricity savings, after school officials learned to manage a computer system that controls when the lights stay on. In the past, the lights would stay on at night and on weekends, Katz said.
“We couldn’t turn them off,” he said. “We had exterior lights during the day, they were just running. We had lights in the parking lot when there was nobody in the building.”
Last month, the middle school began programming its computer so that the lights would stay on at night or on weekends only in parts of the building where they were needed.
“We’ve better matched the building lighting with the events going on in the building,” Katz said. “So we’re expecting to see a significant reduction when we get our next bill.”