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Grand Rapids, Mich., Wants to Put in 18K Smart LED Streetlights, but Financing May Take Time

The city is questioning whether its priorities are in order.

(TNS) — Grand Rapids, Mich., city commissioners want to take a closer look at a proposed $20 million LED streetlight project before moving forward with the financing.

Commissioners decided June 5 to postpone a vote on bonding for the project until their July 10 meeting to give them time to dig in to the project further.

The project would need $8 million to replace all of the city's 17,800 streetlights with LED fixtures, and $12 million to update conduits, wires and duct work that are a part of the city's primary electric circuit.

June 5 city staff asked the commission to approve a notice of intent to bond for the project — which only would have started a 90-day legal clock required if the commission ultimately would want to go forward with the project.

"We own these streetlights and we haven't invested in them in a really long time," Mayor Rosalynn Bliss said.

Some of the commissioners, including Third Ward Commissioner Senita Lenear, weren't ready to take the first step. There were also questions about the new streetlights' potential surveillance capabilities.

"When I think about this level of investment, I think about things like lead and how the community is suffering," Lenear said. "If I was going to do something community-wide, I would address lead, not street lights."

Rates of lead poisoning in children in the 49507 Grand Rapids zip code were the highest in the state in 2015, according to Michigan's Department of Health and Human Services.

First Ward Commissioner Kurt Reppart said the magnitude of investment was worth a second look to make sure it was "equitable."

"I am not in opposition of street lighting, but I think the timing is not right," Lenear said.

The commission has still not decided how to respond to the police chief's annual request for more officers as the department is under a microscope for its relations with the community.

City staff have been pushing for the investment in the electric utility that has been long overdue. Environmental Services Director Mike Lunn said some of the upgrades have been integrated into street projects that are slated for this summer.

"I'm very concerned about postponing this much longer," Second Ward Commissioner Ruth Kelly said. "We have had so many complaints about burned-out lights and circuits failing."

Outgoing Third Ward Commissioner Dave Allen said the commission has been working "pedal to the metal" on affordable housing proposals and a failed first attempt to hire a new city manager. With that in mind, Allen said he was worried about the public's perception should the commission approve a "notice of intent to bond" if the commission was not committed to the project.

"I'm very uncomfortable with putting out a notice of intent if this body is not resolute," Allen said.

The type of streetlights the city is considering would be able to be remotely controlled and monitored through radio waves. That technology means the lights themselves would be capable of hosting additional sensors — including ones that could read water meters. In the future sensors could also be added to the lights to monitor pedestrian counts and open parking spaces — a capability some commissioners found alarming.

"We need to be a smart city — our residents need to be very comfortable that we're not watching over them from streetlamps," Allen said. "Once you put the infrastructure in, folks aren't going to trust that you're not just going to go up there and plug something in."

The city commission has a policy that requires any new surveillance technology to go through a specific public vetting process.

"In the future we'll be able to add just about any kind of sensor depending on what it is," Lunn said. "As we add those sensors that's when we'll have to be conscious of these kinds of things. Is that sensor a camera; is that sensor a motion detector to count pedestrians; is that sensor counting an empty parking space."

Managing Director of Public Services Tom Almonte said any additional sensors would be vetted through that policy.

©2018 The Grand Rapids Press, Mich., Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.