Scott Lewis investigates why so many street lights are out in Detroit and what can be done about it

DETROIT (WXYZ) - Citizen complaints about street light outages in Detroit are growing yet very few have been fixed.

Action News Investigators dig deep into the Detroit's Public Lighting Department mess; exploring why so many street lights are out and why.

You might be surprised to hear whose neighborhoods are in the dark and why the public lighting department is operating in violation of the law.

Citizen complaints on street light outages are growing louder and only a small fraction are being addressed.

Action News Investigators have learned that the board designed to oversee the Public Lighting Department was eliminated long ago.

If you drive by Mayor Dave Bing's house any night you'll see street lights burning brightly around the Manoogian Mansion. Yet some of the Mayor Bing's neighbors aren't faring as well.

The mansion is located in the historic Berry Subdivision, one of Detroit's most expensive and highly-taxed neighborhoods. Nearly a third of the street lights in the subdivision are out. Two streets in the four-square-block neighborhood are practically dark and have been for at least a year.

Daylight reveals the sad conditions; light poles are reduced to rusted stumps. There are three in two blocks near the Manoogian Mansion. When Public Lighting Department workers hauled one of the downed poles away, they left the wire coiled a few feet away in a low hanging tree.

Berry Subdivision resident Bob Zaber says he fought long and hard to get a new pole put in when the old one toppled near his meticulously restored historic home.

"There's the pole," Zaber told Scott Lewis, pointing to a shiny new aluminum light pole.

"It doesn't work?" asked Lewis. "No, It does not and never has…since the day they put it in," Zaber said.

Down the street from the mayor's neighborhood is Historic Indian Village, one of Detroit's architectural jewels. There are street lights at every intersection. Most of them don't work despite the high taxes paid by residents.

There are magnificent homes in Detroit's Sherwood Forest where Councilman Gary Brown lives. But when the sun goes down in Brown's neighborhood its pitch black; all of the street lights are out.

A lot of Detroit's major thoroughfares also have big sections in the dark. A one-mile stretch of East Jefferson west of Conner has all the lights out on the south side of the street and every other light out on the north side.

Then there's the busy stretch of Conner between East Warren and Mack.

"Look at all this traffic. People are constantly going through here," said Detroit resident Cornelius Sims.

Sims told Action News that the lights in that section of Conner have been on-and-off, but mostly off for months. Sims says he saw a woman get run over by a car and killed crossing the street in that dark stretch of road recently. Sims said the lights came back on the next day and then went out again a short time later.

"Does somebody have to die once a month to keep the lights on?" Sims asked. "That's horrible."

Detroit City Ombudsman Durene Brown investigates complaints from Detroit citizens. She says street light complaints are soaring and she's frustrated by a lack of action from the Bing administration.

"Out of the 400 complaints that we've had this year beginning January 1, only 11 have been repaired, or replaced," said Brown.

So what's going on here? How have things gotten so bad? And what will it take to fix this problem?

A big part of the problem is lack of investment. Detroit's lighting system is 80-years old. Much of the equipment is obsolete and poorly maintained. A lot of light poles have outdated mercury bulbs that aren't available anymore. Some light poles are so old they look like they belong in the Henry Ford Museum.

Then there's the theft problem.

The old poles are easy pickings for thieves who steal aluminum cover plates and parts inside to sell for scrap. The parts that attract thieves are right at the base of the poles and easy to remove. Modern light poles don't have anything to steal at ground level.

The underground Public Lighting Department grid, where high voltage cables run, is also in bad shape, according to workers.

Public lighting workers say there is no preventive maintenance and cables are failing at a record rate.

City employee Mark Roseman was working in a public lighting manhole last June, when a cable exploded leaving him seriously injured. Roseman told Investigator Scott Lewis the department has become a joke.

"Now it isn't even close to being a power company, you know what I'm saying," Roseman said.

Lewis asked the Ombudsman if the problems are the result of Detroit's money problems or if there is some mismanagement involved.

"I believe it's all mismanagement. It's all mismanagement," Brown said.

The Public Lighting Department hasn't had a director for months, and the Action News Investigators discovered that another level of management has been eliminated. The Detroit City Charter requires a five-member commission

appointed by the mayor to oversee Public Lighting. But the late

Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young did away with the commission decades ago.

Attorney Bill Goodman, who has advised city council on legal matters, told Channel 7 that Mayor Bing could be on the hook for not appointing a commission.

"In the failure to appoint a public lighting commission the mayor is basically violating the law, because the charter is the law of the City of Detroit, and he's violating it," Goodman said.

Goodman believes any citizen could take the mayor to court and force the issue.

In the meantime, what could be done to fix the public lighting mess?

There's been a lot of talk about having someone take over public lighting, either a private company or DTE.

Action News contacted DTE and they gave us this statement:

"DTE Energy has been asked to perform an assessment of the City of Detroit Public Lighting Department (PLD). The company is looking at the PLD's assets and customer base, and we have been asked to provide input on the most effective and efficient way to serve PLD's customers."

Mark Roseman, the Public Lighting Department injured in the explosion doesn't think a DTE takeover will ever happen.

"Asking Edison to take us over is like asking a guy with a Mercedes Benz to take over a hoopty," Roseman said.

But Mayor Bing's Chief of Operations, Chris Brown, is more optimistic. He told Investigator Scott Lewis he thinks it is feasible to orchestrate a takeover by someone. Brown admits the system has problems, he understands why citizens are angry, and he is working on short term and long term fixes.

Early next week, Scott Lewis will have more on Detroit's plans to improve public lighting, after talking in-depth with the city's chief operating officer.


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