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Albany mayor: $29.3M LED bond ‘very conservatively’ pays off

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Streetlights illuminate Berkshire Blvd. near Buckingham Lake in Albany. Photo: Tyler A. McNeil/The Upstate Courier

ALBANY — City officials don’t know when street lights aren’t working.

“If we had the technology, we’d know exactly right now,” Chris Spencer, the city’s planning commissioner responded to Councilwoman Ginnie Farrell on Tuesday. “But we don’t.”

Farrell asked how many decorative streetlights aren’t working in Albany neighborhoods. Spencer couldn’t answer.

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Part of a 15-year bond to purchase and upgrade city lights to LED, future smart node technology will enable officials to track when lights are out, adjust brightness, and potentially accommodate a municipal internet system.

Mayor Kathy Sheehan gained Common Council approval on Tuesday to borrow upwards of $29.3 million for the project. The city needs $9.4 million to purchase the current streetlight system from National Grid.

Sheehan told the Common Council that the project would ultimately save “very conservatively hundreds of thousands, and in some cases, more than a million dollars in savings every year” despite hefty expenses.

Albany currently pays over $4 million each year for streetlights.

Councilwoman Judy Doeschatte is certain the city will exceed debt service limits within the next five years under the bond. What’s more, she fears some of the borrowed cash will sit around.

Doeschatte was also worried about the cost of decorative lights, projected to be higher than standard upgrades. The average cost of regular lights in Albany is $1,400; the average costs of decorative lights is $1,900.

Despite reservations about the hefty price tag, she eventually gave it a thumbs up, supporting the ordinance as an environmental initiative and a long-term cost-reduction measure. She seeks alternative strategies to keep the project’s price tag lower than expected.

Councilman Michael O’Brien was also skeptical of the bond but ultimately OK’d it, basing his decision on however Doeschatte voted.

He was uncertain about voting yes “because it’s the highest priced [LED streetlight project] of all the cities in Upstate New York.” Note: Legislative aide Michele Andre corrected him: at $39 million, Syracuse has the most expensive streetlight conversion project in Upstate New York. 

O’Brien was also worried that greater bonds could mount pressure on the city’s already challenged fiscal health with other projects like Albany Skyway construction running on borrowed money.

With only O’Brien and Doeschatte on the fence and two others absent, the ordinance was certain to pass — narrowly or not. Ten votes were needed to OK the measure.

Councilman Owusu Anane provided unwavering support, deflecting budget worries from iffy council members with an appeal to equity. Anane said the streetlights could support a citywide internet source for poor residents, a cause he’s championed in prior legislation.

“It’s not always about the money,” Anane said. “We need to know the kind of message we are sending the kids of this city.”

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