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Streetlights likely to go dark in unincorporated Central Valley community

A sign calls for a public meeting on Calwa's streetlights.
A sign calls for a public meeting on Calwa's streetlights.
Sasha Khokha/KQED

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About two million Californians live in unincorporated areas, outside the sheltering arms of a city governance plan - and budget. Many of these communities are so poor, they lack basic infrastructure, like sewers or sidewalks. One of these places, a tiny town in Fresno County, has locals expecting the streetlights will be turned off next week. The California Report's Sasha Khokha has the story.

A white van selling Mexican pastries blares its horn as it rolls slowly through the streets of the community of Calwa. It has to swerve to avoid potholes. Big puddles of water pool up here after it rains. There are no gutters. But there are plenty of chickens and loose dogs.

Calwa got its name from the California Wine Association which used to anchor this community. But now most of its vineyards have been paved over, and Calwa has become an industrial pocket just 10 minutes from downtown Fresno. The people who live here are mostly Latino - they work in the fields, or nearby factories.

Sandra Celedon-Castro is watching her niece and nephew play basketball under the streetlight in front of her house. It's the only light on her block.

"If you start to look around, you'll see light posts, but not all of them have lights," she says.

And now Fresno County plans to pull the plug on all 36 street lights here.

"We already have very limited resources, and the fact that we're going to be left completely in the darkness, it's just a scary thought," Celedon-Castro says. "This is the result of really poor planning."

She puts the blame on Fresno County. Much of Calwa is unincorporated, and its lights are paid for by a special county-run utility district. Once upon a time, Calwa residents paid a tax to fund that district. But nearly 30 years ago, the county inexplicably stopped collecting that tax. Ever since, the county has paid the light bill from the district's reserves. At the end of this month, that account will run dry.

Now it's time for residents to step in and pay again, says the county's resources manager, John Thompson.

"We always give the residents of the area, or that community, the final say," Thompson says. "They have the ability to say, 'Yes, we'll pay for that,' or 'No we won't.'"

Thompson's department sent out ballots to the 400 property owners in Calwa, asking them to vote on a yearly $25 tax to keep the street lights on. Only about a quarter of the ballots came back, and most of them were "no" votes.

Residents like Dennis Chavez say $25 a year is a hefty price tag for people in Calwa, where the annual median family income is about $28,000.
"I got a dog, and I got sensor lights," says Chavez, leaning on the chain link fence in his front yard. "If they want to pay extra, go buy yourself some sensor lights. I'll install 'em for you."

But the Fresno County Sheriff's Department is worried crime will escalate once the neighborhood goes dark. It doesn't have the resources to dispatch additional patrols.

Sandra Celedon-Castro walks up and down her block, talking to neighbors about the street lights. Many of them are Spanish-speaking renters. And since the $25 tax would come from property owners, renters didn't get to vote.

What frustrates Celedon-Castro is that her neighbors just a few blocks away have plenty of street lights. That's because portions of Calwa have been annexed into the city of Fresno. But residents in the unincorporated parts have to navigate the complex county bureaucracy to keep their few lights on.

"It's really a metaphor for the way that we're governed," Castro says. "We're often left in the dark about how our government system is actually run."

Most people who live in cities don't even think about who keeps the streetlights on. Renters and owners both benefit from basic services provided by city government. If thousands, or millions, of people in a city share the cost of a service, they usually pay less than if only a few hundred households foot the bill.

"Should government be accountable only to larger areas where there's an economy of scale, or should government be accountable to all of us?" Veronica Garibay asks.

She works with California Rural Legal Assistance's Community Equity Initiative, which advocates for the state's unincorporated communities. She counts about 550 of them in the San Joaquin Valley alone.

"It's not like residents from these communities are asking for some sort of luxury to go into their communities," Garibay says. "They're asking for something as basic as street lights, or safe drinking water, or sewer."

But Fresno County can't afford to pay Calwa's light bill. Right now, the cash-strapped county has closed courthouses and is scrambling to keep libraries open.  

Back in Calwa, a fleet of PG&E service trucks rumbles past the neighborhood where the street lights will turn off next week. Ironically, the utility giant maintains two service yards here.

PG&E says it's looking for a way to keep the lights on before the county stops paying its bill.