It's difficult to imagine a new business being a better match for Mayor Andy Berke's new, better Chattanooga than Global Green Lighting.
Distinguished UTC alum and successful entrepreneur Don Lepard brought the high-tech, green-minded company from China to tech-loving, green-minded Chattanooga—yes, from China to Chattanooga—to produce LED smart lights that would replace the city's inefficient and outdated streetlights. The lights would require 70 percent less electricity than the existing streetlights, drastically reduce maintenance costs and pay for themselves in 13 years.
But these lights are more than just streetlights. Lepard's wireless, radio-controlled lights can dim to save energy at dusk and dawn, flash warning signals during emergencies and serve as searchlights to aid police in tailing suspects. They can also be connected to EPB's gigabit network, allowing them access to numerous external devices, like video cameras, Wi-Fi routers and air-quality sensors. And they have a life expectancy of five times longer than the older, traditional lights.
Lepard's $18 million contract with the city would have amounted to the installation and maintenance of 27,000 of these "gig lights," a 13-year warranty on the lights, and the creation of 250 jobs—many of which were going to homeless veterans, a group Berke singled out as needing help during his recent State of the City address.
Sounds like a great fit, right?
In a move that has raised eyebrows, and ire in some, Berke scrapped the entire contract, opening the project to new bidders and causing a fed-up Lepard to close down his factory, lay off much of his existing workforce and leave town.
The initial contract, signed in March 2012 by a previous City Council and former Mayor Ron Littlefield, stipulated that GGL would replace about a third of the city's streetlights for roughly $6 million. After that phase was complete, the council would have the option of approving the final two phases. Lepard agreed, and work began.
But complications arose during phase one. As GGL took down the old lights and put up the new ones, they noticed that EPB was charging the city for higher-wattage lights, despite the fact that some of the lights were of the lower-wattage variety.
As that was happening, the mayor's office was analyzing its future spending and asked EPB to help estimate what the new lights should cost. EPB estimated that the GGL project would cost significantly more than Lepard had estimated. Lepard stood by his estimates, however, and the City Council sent a letter to the mayor, demanding answers. The council also launched an audit, in which City Auditor Stan Sewell determined that EPB's higher figure was based on inflated maintenance figures, millions in ongoing charges and what amounted to a $5 million billing discrepancy. EPB President Harold DePriest acknowledged that the utility overbilled in some areas, but argued that the charges were evened out by the areas where they underbilled.
Regardless, a day before the City Council was to review Sewell's audit, Berke took the recommendation of Chief Operating Officer Jeff Cannon to take the most energy-efficient and cost-effective bid to replace roughly 700 city lights each year as they burn out.
"We're going with a different system now," Berke told the Times Free Press. "If GGL is the best product at the best price, we will continue to use them, without question."
But they won't be using GGL. Lepard is leaving Chattanooga for Memphis, and the people of Chattanooga are left with a lot of questions.
If, as Berke contends, his decision had nothing to do with EPB, why did he stall this project until getting numbers from EPB? Why is he trusting those numbers when Sewell's audit showed them to be inaccurate? Shouldn't the accuracy of any numbers coming out of EPB be questioned at least a little bit when DePriest admitted that the utility has both overbilled and underbilled the city—and stands to lose money if more efficient lights are installed?
Is this move all about politics? Is it, as WGOW's Jeff Styles and others in the community assert, yet another example of Berke's systematic dismantling of everything associated with Littlefield?
Is Berke counting on us to forget about all of this so he can move on with his agenda?
Will this situation cause other companies to think twice before signing contracts with the city?
Should Chattanooga just stick to tourism?
Updated @ 4:38 p.m. on 5/21/14 to correct the contract figure from $24 million to $18 million.
Former Chattanooga Pulse Editor Bill Colrus writes about (in no particular order) news, culture and media. You can find him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.