GUY RAZ, HOST:
Budget cuts are showing up on the streets of another Midwestern city. In Rockford, Illinois, they're turning out the lights. The city is in the middle of removing 2,300 streetlights, all in an effort to save money. That's about 15 percent of all the lights in town.
Corina Curry has covered the story for the Rockford Register Star and joins us now. Welcome to the program, Corina.
CORINA CURRY: Thank you very much.
RAZ: First of all, a bit of context. You know, budgets are tight all over the country. How bad are things there in Rockford?
CURRY: They're pretty tough here in Rockford. They have been for a handful of years and this year's budget is no different. They were looking at trying to trim about 5.5 million last year. And they're looking at 5.2 million this year.
RAZ: A $5.2 million deficit, so that's pretty considerable for a medium-sized town, right?
RAZ: And how many people in Rockford?
CURRY: One hundred and fifty thousand, roughly.
RAZ: So who decided to turn off and actually take down streetlights?
CURRY: You know, this is one of the proposals that was an option came forward from our public works department, as one way that they could save a considerable amount of money. They had estimated last year - when they were talking about this plan - that they spend about $2.7 million just on street lighting. And what they were hoping to save was between 250 and $500,000.
RAZ: So that was a considerable amount of money, given that they were talking about a $5.2 million budget gap.
CURRY: Yeah, a simple part of what the public works department was being asked to contribute, as their share of the cut.
RAZ: But the city isn't just turning out turning off lights, they are actually literally ripping some of these streetlights out of the sidewalks. Why are they doing that?
CURRY: You know, a number of lights are being removed and they're being removed by the electrical company. Some of them, the poles are remaining because the company is using the pole for other purposes.
RAZ: All right, so with Daylight Saving Time now upon us, is it literally pitch dark in parts of Rockford, you know, starting at around 6:00 PM?
CURRY: It is dark. Yeah, it is getting dark earlier. I'm getting quite a bit of feedback from different parts of town, saying that they're seeing dramatic differences on the streets where they live and it's concerning them. I think that if you just drive around town it's not that noticeable. But if you're in an area and you're used to a certain kind of lighting every time you drive home, you're going to notice it.
RAZ: Yes, I mean, 15 percent of the lights, that's a lot because we're talking about a city of 150,000.
I'm wondering if there is a trade-off here. I mean, obviously, the city is saving money, but what about public safety issues?
CURRY: You know, there were a lot of questions posed to the police chief. And the police chief told the council that there really are no studies that show direct correlation. And he is of the belief that, directly, the lighting doesn't affect crime.
RAZ: And so far, there's no evidence to suggest otherwise, I guess.
CURRY: There isn't. But we're only a few months into this.
RAZ: There are other cities and towns in America that are doing this, cutting off streetlights; Highland Park, Michigan and Clintonville, Wisconsin are two examples. How else is Rockford sort of thinking creatively about ways to balance the budget?
CURRY: You know, they are looking in different areas where they can cut back, and then also generate revenue. One thing that they're talking about is to adopt an increase on vehicle impoundments. That they're talking about increasing that price from $100 to $500.
CURRY: It's a potential revenue-generator for the city of about $500,000, they're hoping next year. So that's a sizable chunk of money.
RAZ: I guess it's a sign of the times, then.
CURRY: Well, I think the things that Rockford is going through right now is no different than a lot of other municipalities that are similar to Rockford, because of the impact of the economy; because of some of the things that Rockford struggles with, with its poverty levels and crime levels, just the economic opportunities that are here. I think that's why when this idea of reducing the streetlights came forward here, it had already been going on in other places in the country, even when they started talking about it last year.
RAZ: Corina, thank you.
CURRY: Thank you very much.
RAZ: That's Corina Curry. She reports for the Rockford Register Star in Rockford, Illinois. That city has decided to remove many of its streetlights to close a budget deficit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.