Following years of litigation, the Town of Johnston and National Grid have reached an agreement regarding payment for electricity for the streetlights along state roads in town.
Citing unfunded mandates, generous legacy contracts, and cuts to general revenue sharing in the state during the Great Recession in 2010, Mayor Joseph Polisena at a press conference on Friday stated that he was looking for ways to save money and cut back costs at that time.
“It was then that I was looking outside my office window one night, it was a late night, and I said, ‘You know, who’s the fool that has to pay for the street lights,’” said Polisena. “Then I did some research and found that I was the fool.”
Polisena said that he asked Town Solicitor William Conley Jr. eight years ago if there was a law or statute that mandated that Rhode Island cities and towns had to pay the electricity for street lighting on state roads. Finding none, the town then set out to determine how many lights were located on state roads versus town roads.
The task was the responsibility of Peter Delponte, Johnston’s Code Enforcement Officer, who found that there were 771 streetlights that Johnston taxpayers were paying for. The town then notified National Grid that it would no longer pay for the costs of those lights.
“I instructed my finance director to withhold payments for those lights but to put the money in an escrow account so we had the money, obviously, until we found out what we were going to do,” said Polisena.
Last week, as the town’s case was set to go to trial in Superior Court, Polisena said he reached out to National Grid to make an offer.
“My main goal was to ensure that the taxpayers of Johnston did not have to pay for someone else’s street lights and someone else’s electric bill,” said Polisena. “I had an idea that I would be willing to pay National Grid from 2010 when we stopped paying up until now. However, effective immediately we would no longer pay for street lights on state roads.”
Terms were then worked out between the two parties and their attorneys, which were then agreed to. Last Thursday, in a closed session, the Town Council ratified the agreement that ensures that Johnston will no longer be responsible for paying for the electricity for streetlights on state roads.
“The town of Johnston will pay past bills that we owe, which for the past eight years comes to approximately…$3,182,800.87,” said Polisena, who called the arrangement groundbreaking. “This termination of Johnston paying for street lights on state roads will save the taxpayers of Johnston, and the numbers fluctuate, between $200,000 and $250,000 a year.”
Conley added that the Street Light Tariff, issued by the Public Utilities Commission, has no language that required the town to pay for state streetlights. He added that there were two stages to the case, the first which focused on the legal issues of that tariff, and the second was digging into the history of the payments dating back to the 1960s to discover why the town started paying the electric bill.
“What this does mean, as the mayor said, is that from this day forward, the town of Johnston, after having done it since really the 1950s, will no longer pay for streetlights on state roads that traverse our municipality,” said Conley.
Polisena stated that the saved money would be used to maintain town buildings, infrastructure and equipment.
“We no longer ever, ever, ever, ever have to pay for state streetlights anymore, so it’s a savings that adds up for several infrastructure projects that will benefit the town for many years to come,” said Polisena, who stated that the town always paid for the town-owned lights.
While the mayor said he was unsure who would now pay for the cost of lights, he believed that the state would have to assume payment. Polisena also stated that other cities and towns across the state should benefit from this agreement, should they pursue the option.
“But I’m hoping they send me a Christmas card, and send the Town Council a Christmas card, because basically I knew if I won they would win,” said the mayor.
Polisena thanked the Town Council, William Conley and Finance Director Joseph Chiodo for their efforts. He also thanked National Grid as well.
“I put them in a bad spot, I really did. But I felt that I had legitimate reasons to do what I did. National Grid didn’t take it personal, National Grid battled through the court system like we did,” said Polisena. “The men and women of National Grid and the management division were very, very professional, and I’m very proud that they were.”
Ted Kresse, Director of Communications at National Grid, released a short statement when asked about the statement.
“We are pleased to have reached a settlement agreement with the Town of Johnston for the recovery of more than $3 million in arrears that were owed since 2011,” read the statement. “In the months ahead, we will continue to work toward determining the best path forward to resolve those outstanding issues that still remain.”