Dark days ahead for state

VITAL council services could be cut because energy companies want to dramatically increase the cost of providing public lighting.
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Light poles, cables and bulbs that keep NSW streets lit at night are supplied and maintained by Energy Australia, Integral Energy and Country Energy.

Energy Australia has approached the Australian Energy Regulator (AER) to increase the cost of providing public lighting costs by 11 per cent in July next year and by 40 per cent in 2014.

The costs, which can run into millions of dollars each year for councils, are ultimately borne by ratepayers. However, councils using Energy Australia’s public lighting say the increase could be as much as 67per cent in 2014.

These councils, which represent about 3.2 million people in parts of Sydney, the Hunter Valley and the Illawarra, spend a combined $42 million a year on public lighting.

An increase of between 40 per cent and 67 per cent would lead to total costs blowing out by between $17 million and $28 million a year.

Because the Local Government Minister sets councils’ rate increases each year – usually less than 4 per cent – it is unlikely the increased public lighting costs could be incorporated into rates.

"These increases that are being foisted upon us – the only response councils can have is to reduce services to the community," said David Lewis, the general manager of the Southern Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils, which represents 15 councils and is leading the campaign against the price rises.

"It could be anything – a few library books, less maintenance on playing fields, decreased service levels in community support."

An Energy Australia spokesman said it was currently subsidising street lighting to councils by about $1.7 million a year. The proposed increased costs would better reflect the real value of the service, he said.

Integral Energy and Country Energy have also sought to increase their charges. The regulator has asked all three companies to resubmit their proposed cost increases by early next year.

"In the end, it is up to the independent umpire – the AER – to make the decision about the fair cost of street lighting services over the next five years," the Energy Australia spokesman said.