Sunbury may fall into total darkness unless streetlight program is rescued

Published 10:54 am Monday, June 14, 2010

GATESVILLE – Hopefully, the lights will not go out in Sunbury.

Earlier this month, officials with the Sunbury Ruritan Club reached out for help from the Gates County Board of Commissioners in regards to their Streetlight Program. For over 50 years, residents and business owners in Sunbury have paid their own way when it came to illuminating this unincorporated town once the sun went down.

Those lights, which provide a level of safety in this eastern Gates County community, may be switched off in the very near future if a plan of action is not developed.

According to Sunbury Ruritan John Crocker, a community improvement initiative was launched by the club in the 1960’s.

“At that time, club members canvassed the homeowners and businesses in the community to see if they wanted to have streetlights installed,” Crocker said. “Those homeowners and businessmen were advised that they would have to pick-up a share of the cost of operating the streetlights. The majority agreed, leading to what is today 28 streetlights.”

The area illuminated by these dusk to dawn lights covers from Tom Perry’s Service Station south on NC 32 to where the new Sunbury Fire Department Station is currently being erected and on US 158 from St. John’s Zion Church west to Beulah Baptist Church. There are also streetlights on Bank Street and Archer Street.

Crocker said the current bill with Dominion Power runs just under $400 per month. Currently, each residence is charged $55 per year and each church and business is charged $85 per year for their share of operating the streetlights.

He added that over the past two years, Sunbury has lost five businesses and has empty houses.

“We have had new people to move in that weren’t obligated to pay for these streetlights,” Crocker said. “That same commitment of 50 years ago just isn’t there. What has happened is that we’re running shy of money (to pay the electric bill).”

He added there was enough money currently in the streetlight fund to pay the bill for the remainder of the summer.

“After that, they (streetlights) will probably go out,” Crocker stressed. “We’ve been told that every light that goes out, there is a $100 fee (by Dominion Power) to reactivate it. So any light that goes out will probably stay out.”

Crocker said an application was made in December to Dominion Power for a community assistance grant, but, to date, there has been no response to that request.

“We sent them a letter about a month ago asking about the status of the grant, but we still haven’t heard anything from them,” he said.

He added that he spoke a few months ago with a customer service representative at Dominion Power in regards to running low on funds to pay the bill and was informed, “to just send what you have” and “she would open discussions about the issue when the bill became in arrears,” Crocker stated.

Crocker said it was a possibility that the lights will eventually go out in Sunbury, adding that this becomes an issue of public safety.

“I’m sure if (Gates County) Sheriff (Ed) Webb was here he could tell you that a lighted highway is a much safer highway and that a lighted community is a much safer and crime-free community,” Crocker said.

Commissioner Carlton Nickens asked who owns the streetlights.

Crocker revealed a copy of the Dominion Power bill, saying the customer name at the top of the bill has always been the Gates County Commissioners.

“But it comes to us (the Sunbury Ruritan Club) and we have always paid it,” Crocker said. “Mike (Cronce; Sunbury Ruritan Club treasurer) handles all the funds and the billing for the streetlight project.”

Crocker added, “Maybe with your influence you can work out something with Dominion Power; it seems like they don’t respond to any of our requests.”

He confirmed that the Sunbury Ruritan Club bills the local citizens and businesses for the funds needed to pay the monthly bill for the streetlights. He added that some of the residents pay beyond what is requested in an effort to keep the lights on.

“Is there a possibility when this was first done 50 years ago that this was brought before the county commissioners at that time,” asked Commissioner Henry Jordan. “I’m wondering if we can look at that (referencing the old minutes).”

“We’ll try,” County Manager Toby Chappell said. “Perhaps a good place to start would be when the account with Dominion Power was first opened. That will give us some type of timetable to work with in researching the old board minutes.”

Chappell added that because the Town of Sunbury does not legally exist (it’s an unincorporated town), that is perhaps the reason the initial account for the streetlights there was set-up in the name of the Gates County Board of Commissioners.

“Since Sunbury is not a legal entity, the only way to establish an account would be through someone with an existing account that that would be us, the county,” Chappell explained.

Jordan asked Crocker if he thought the current participation in the streetlight program would stop by the end of the summer and if the Sunbury Ruritan Club would continue the program.

“Our only expense in this program is to pay for the streetlight out in front of the Sunbury Ruritan Club building; other than that all we do is what I mentioned earlier, we administrate the program, solicit the funds to pay for the streetlights and pay the Dominion bill,” Crocker answered. “We couldn’t pay for the whole program ourselves; you’re talking about $5,000 a year.”

Commissioner Wade Askew asked if there could be an adopt-a-light program by the citizens of Sunbury or any other individual or business in the county. He further suggested placing a plaque on the pole signifying it as adopted, perhaps going as far as to have that light in honor or in memory of a person.

“When this program first started 50 years ago, a lot of those residents have either died or moved away,” Crocker noted. “When a new person moves in, they assume the lights are paid for until we send out the information to that new resident, explaining that the lights are there on a voluntary basis and paid for by annual contributions.”

“I think the adopt-a-light idea would be a good program,” Chappell said. “You would only need 28 people to take part, and they don’t even have to live in the county. I’ll take one.”

“What would be the legal ramifications of the county taking something like this over,” Jordan asked.

“I don’t know there would be any legal ramifications,” said Pitt Godwin who serves as legal counsel to the commissioners. “My suggestion is that we work together with the Sunbury Ruritan Club to keep the lights on any way we can.”

“We need to work to keep these lights on, but by taking them over we run the risk of each township in the county asking for streetlights there as well with us picking up the tab,” Commission Chairman Graham Twine stressed.

Godwin added that it was upsetting to him that Dominion Power has yet to respond to the Sunbury Ruritan’s request for a community assistance grant.

Chappell said he would send a letter to Dominion in regards to the issue.