Each year, North Charleston pays South Carolina Electric & Gas almost $2 million in electric bills or in lease agreements to operate the city's 8,290 street lights.
But at any given time, about a quarter of those — approximately 1,800 lights — are broken.
City Councilman Ron Brinson brought the issue to the attention of other city leaders Thursday, saying the broken lights create a safety hazard. During the winter, he said, morning and evening commutes take place in the dark.
"This is a problem we’re seeing in all of our districts," he said.
And it's not just residents at risk but also commuters. City leaders estimate that about 140,000 commuters pour into the city each day — more than the number of city residents.
Brinson said the power company has been responsive to his concerns, but he wanted to discuss the problem publicly because it is a citywide challenge. His move comes after SCE&G's parent company was bought by Dominion Energy of Virginia, so the city's street light status quo could change.
The city has had other struggles with broken lights. Mayor Keith Summey has pressured the S.C. Department of Transportation to fix a string of lights over the Interstate 526 bridge near Rivers Avenue. Those lights have been out for years. During that time, accidents increased, The Post and Courier reported.
During the City Council meeting, Brinson called on Public Works Director Jim Hutto to explain the way street light leases have worked in the past.
Hutto said SCE&G owns and leases about 7,800 lights to the city for $15 to $30 a month. The city also leases 730 light poles, each of which costs about $35 a month.
While it's SCE&G's responsibility to maintain the lights and the poles, Hutto said when a driver hits and damages a pole — and insurance didn't cover the damage — the city has had to pay $2,200 to SCE&G to fix it.
That didn't sit well with Councilwoman Rhonda Jerome, who said, "Why do we have to fix the lights if we don't own them?"
“Good question," Hutto replied, as the audience chuckled and shook their heads.
“I’m not a scientist," Jerome added, "but that don't sound right."
Hutto said the power company asks for light pole numbers before repairs can start. He has kept a spreadsheet of every light that has been called for service. He said it would easier to report outages if SCE&G provided a GPS overlay showing the light pole numbers for each of its lights in the city.
SCE&G has not provided that, Hutto said, so people must walk up to the a light pole and write down its number, which can be a hazardous task in the dark along a busy street.
Spokesman Paul Fischer said SCE&G does not require pole numbers for repairs, but such information is helpful.
“Cross streets, landmarks or neighboring addresses are also helpful to us when reporting a light out,” he said.
He added: "With nearly 270,000 lights across our system, approximately 90 percent of all repairs are completed within three days."
If 20 percent of the city's street lights are out, Brinson said, then about $400,000 of the city's $2 million in light payments is going to waste.
Meanwhile, there are signs SCE&G may be seeing the light: After Brinson had the street light discussion added to the City Council agenda, a utility official contacted him to report that 45 lights in his district had been identified. As of Friday morning, Fischer said, 35 have been fixed.
"As soon as this thing showed up so innocently on this agenda, SCANA (SCE&G's parent company) started calling," Brinson said. "I really did appreciate their spontaneous response."