With revenues from sales taxes trickling into the city’s coffers at a slower pace – down by 3 percent this year – the balance between guns and butter becomes more significant. Typically mentioned during times of war when budgeting for military and civilian goods, government officials on all levels are faced with making “guns vs. butter” decisions in allocating diminished revenues to all manner of agencies and purposes.
Most would concur that the “guns” of our municipal government include the original services cities were organized to provide, including a system of codes and regulations, police and fire protection, and public works, which includes streets, bridges and other essential utilities. Digging in the history of cities in general, one notes the existence of street lights and a staff of roving lamplighters entrusted with their upkeep, something traceable at least back to the Renaissance. Light was appreciated as a deterrent to crime, and the lamplighter’s cry that “all is well” was an assurance of safety, whether or not it really existed.
Thus it seems somewhat ironic that the city’s water and light department has proposed extinguishing hundreds of streetlights in a system the community has taken more than a century to provide. The savings – estimated to be more than $70,000 annually after an $80,000 removal cost – appear to be questionable. Could this escalate into another municipal fiasco? Possibly, but it needn’t.
The city needs to consider reductions in streetlights as something akin to reductions in police patrols, another essential service that helps provide public safety.
The city deserves a salute for finding the right fixture – one that pleases – after a parade of blunders over the decades with the wrong ones, including the so-called “dusk-to-dawn” light.
Efforts to illuminate Columbia began more than a century ago when carbon arc lights sputtered their harsh illumination over various downtown intersections. By 1918, Broadway was decorated with a line of vertical street standards topped by multiple globes. This was followed by an upright standard topped with a single globe, and later hundreds of relatively inexpensive mercury vapor dusk-to-dawn fixtures as the city-wide lighting scheme moved into virtually every neighborhood.
The city is phasing out the old mercury-vapor fixtures, which spread ugly blue-tinted light all over the place, with sodium lamps housed in hoods that direct all of the light downward.
What Columbia doesn’t want to do is attempt the artistic, which has happened in a number of nearby communities. The worst example of what’s glaring and not effective is the especially garish downtown illumination found in Centralia and Monroe City. Glare is not so evident from Boonville’s new fixtures. Fayette should be slapped for fostering light pollution by implanting the wrong fixtures around the town square, not far from the historically significant Morrison Observatory.
Columbia’s principal foray into the artistic in Trailhead Park doesn’t work for me because illumination doesn’t fall where people are. Downtown Columbia rates only a C+ because we could have done better, especially now while the talk is hot about redevelopment.
Although it’s startling to hear talk of extinguishing any street lights, I understand the need to replace most of the existing fixtures. Installation of more and more of the so-called “showbox” fixtures should be fast-tracked. Their pleasing, downward illumination represents a refreshing transition from the harsh, heavens-illuminating light pollution of the dusk-to-dawn units that are on their way out.
With proper spacing and deployment, the city could reduce the total number of streetlights and save some money. Eliminating too many streetlights would be a foolish way to achieve savings. Streetlights are one of those essential “guns” we should cherish as much as we value our police and fire departments.