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Report illuminates unfair lighting bills

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COPAKE—The two lighting districts in this town are relics of the dark ages and should be snuffed out.

That’s part of the conclusion of a report detailing the history and current status of the lighting districts presented by Councilwomen Susan Winchell-Sweeney and Jeanne Mettler at the May 14 Copake Town Board meeting.

According to a March 2007 research paper from the Office of State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, called Local Government Issues in Focus, a lighting district is just one of many kinds of special districts. (http://osc.state.ny.us/localgov/pubs/research/townspecialdistricts.pdf)

Created by the state in response to outward migration from cities into suburban and rural areas, a special district is a mechanism by which towns can deliver certain services, “a geographic area within a town established to address specific needs of the property owners within that district, utilizing charges and, in some cases, user fees paid by taxpayers within the district to finance these services…

“The revenue raised to pay for special district services now represents a significant share of total revenue raised by local governments, which can cost a taxpayer hundreds of dollars annually,” said the comptroller’s report.

The Copake and the Copake-Hillsdale Light Districts have been around since December 2, 1920, when there was a joint meeting of the Copake and Hillsdale town boards at which the districts were created. In scouring the minutes from this and other meetings, the councilwomen could find no rationale for the creation of the districts, but did note “there was no electricity in Copake until… probably well after 1916. At the time these Districts were set up, lights were a novelty and perhaps seen as a luxury. It is reasonable to assume that in 1920 the principal beneficiaries of the street lights were the individuals who lived in the Hamlets. It would therefore have been reasonable for the Town Boards to legislate that only those taxpayers who were the beneficiaries of the light would pay for the lights,” according to the councilwomen’s report.

As part of their research, the councilwomen obtained from New York State Electric and Gas (NYSEG) a list of every street light in town. NYSEG reports there are 107 street lights in the Copake Lighting District and 59 lights in the Copake-Hillsdale Lighting District, the majority of which are within the Town of Hillsdale. But NYSEG’s list does not distinguish which lights are being assessed to Hillsdale and which are being assessed to Copake, says the report.

The councilwomen then set out to find exactly where all these lights are located. They said they have so far photographed and listed the geographic coordinates for 65 of the lights in the NYSEG inventory. The women created a map, based on assessment data, showing the parcels that are in the two lighting districts and “superimposed the location of the street lights, using the geotags embedded in each photograph.”

The women discovered that just 406 of the 3,169 parcels or 12.08% of the total number of parcels in Copake are taxed for the payment of all the street lights in the town. The total assessed value of these parcels is $61,890,531 or 13.78% of the assessed value of all the property in town.

Annually, the total cost of lights in Copake is $15,089.54, with the Copake Lighting District paying $14,540 and the Copake-Hillsdale Lighting District paying the remaining $549.54.

Their research also turned up “what seem to be inequities in the system,” said Ms. Mettler, with some parcels being taxed for lights that are nowhere nearby and some parcels on the same street that are taxed for streetlights while others are not. They also found at least one parcel not located within the lighting district being taxed for lights. They found no lights or fewer lights than NYSEG’s records indicate. They found light poles with ID numbers covered by vines or poles with no numbers at all. They found lights that illuminate establishments that are no longer there. The cost of a street light at the Copake Town Park, a place open and accessible to all Copake residents, is paid for only by those assigned to the lighting district.

Noting that the lighting tax appears to be “unfair, arbitrary and inconsistently imposed” and that “these districts are obsolete,” the councilwomen’s report said all taxpayers should share the cost of the lights.

Councilwoman Winchell-Sweeney said, based on total assessed and taxable value, if the lighting districts were abolished, and all taxpayers shouldered the tab, the cost would be 3 cents per $1,000 assessment or $3 for a house worth $100,000.

In conclusion, the councilwomen suggested that the town institute a procedure for deciding when and where a street light should be installed. The decision should be based on protocol and objective criteria with the sole standard being public safety.

Though they concede that their study is incomplete, they are unsure that the town is being billed properly for its lights. “We believe that the Town should demand that NYSEG conduct an on-site audit. NYSEG should verify that we are only being billed for lights which exist and which are in working order.”

They also urged the Town Board to explore the light district issue further “to determine what steps might be taken to rectify this unfair system of taxation. It is no doubt true that the dissolution of the Districts may be complicated. The complexity of the issue does not relieve the Town of the obligation to seek a remedy.”

Following the presentation Town Supervisor Jeffrey Nayer said he believes that residents who live in lighting districts do have the benefit of additional safety afforded by the lights and should therefore be paying for them. He said if the evidence indicates there are some homeowners who are erroneously paying for lights when they should not be then “we should fix the problem, not just throw the problem away.”

“People who do not live in light districts do not want to pay for street lights,” said the supervisor adding, “Cars have headlights.

“If everyone has to pay, then everyone will ask for a street light,” he said, noting he does not support having the whole town pay.

Councilwoman Terry Sullivan said she believes the town has other priorities. She said while she appreciated the work her colleagues had put in, “I think there are more pressing issues.”

“It is messy,” said Councilwoman Winchell-Sweeney, but “why leave it for someone else to take care of?”

Councilwoman Kelly Miller-Simmons said she was not in favor of dissolving the lighting districts, but that the inequities should be fixed.

Town Attorney Ken Dow spoke about possible courses of action the town could take to dissolve the lighting districts, which involve resolutions, petitions and referendums.

Supervisor Nayer said he did not want Mr. Dow to invest time in further research of the matter that would result in a cost greater than his retainer.

In the end, the board agreed that Supervisor Nayer should contact NYSEG about conducting a lighting district audit to determine if the town is being properly billed.

To contact Diane Valden email dvalden@columbiapaper.com

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