Most of the city’s street lights have been repossessed because officials failed to pay a multimillion-dollar utility bill, giving rise to concerns about safety and crime in darkened neighborhoods.
DTE Energy crews have removed about 1,400 light poles from Highland Park as part of a settlement that allowed the city to avoid paying $4 million in unpaid bills going back several years. DTE, which says the work will be completed by Oct. 31, has replaced 200 lights with newer models on street corners, but most neighborhoods remain in the dark.
Highland Park, plagued by financial trouble, was able to reduce its monthly utility bill from $62,000 to $15,000, an amount officials say fits the city’s budget.
But residents and business owners complain that the resulting darkness is like a welcome mat for criminals.
“After they took the street light from in front of my business, someone climbed onto my roof and stole an air conditioning unit,” said Bobby Hargrove, owner of Hargrove Machinery Sales on Oakland Avenue, who also claims a police officer asked him for money to beef up his protection. “I feel like I’m being punished — I’ve always paid my bills on time, but they took the street light anyway.”
Highland Park Mayor Hubert Yopp insists that crime has not increased since the lights were removed.
“I had the police chief work up the crime stats, and found that most of our burglaries are taking place during the daylight hours,” Yopp said.
But resident Robert Davis, secretary of the city’s school board, said three schools were broken into at night, right after the street lights were removed. “Thankfully, DTE agreed to put new lights in front of the schools, although they’re not all up yet,” he said.
DTE spokesman Len Singer said Highland Park is “a unique situation.”
“We did everything we could to try to help the city come to a level of service they could manage,” Singer said. “We wanted to work with the city to maintain some level of service, and do so in a way that would allow the city to cover the bill each month. They simply weren’t able to maintain the costs for having all the previous lights.”
Singer said the utility is under no obligation to maintain service to communities that don’t pay their bills. “But obviously, we wanted to work with the city to provide some lighting for their residents and businesses,” he said.
DTE began removing the light poles in August, rather than just cutting off the power, to avoid lawsuits and confusion, he said.
“Mostly, it was a liability issue; we didn’t want to have poles there that were de-energized, and likely won’t ever be energized again,” Singer said. “Also, we wanted to avoid the confusion of having lights up that don’t work. In the end, we figured it was better to just take them out.”
Some cities own their street poles and pay DTE for the electricity. “But we own the lights in Highland Park,” Singer said.
The old poles were sold as scrap metal, Singer said. The 200 new poles will be fed power via overhead lines, rather than underground, which makes maintenance easier, Singer said.
Hargrove claims a Highland Park police officer tried to cash in on his loss.
“He contacted me about a week after my air conditioner was stolen and told me he’d make sure my place didn’t get broken into — if I paid him $650 every two weeks,” he said. “That’s like paying protection to the Mafia.”
Hargrove reported the alleged incident to city officials. Yopp said he’s investigating the claim.
“Our residents already pay for police protection; we’d better not be charging them twice,” he said. “I’m definitely going to get to the bottom of this.”
Jessie Flowers, 85, who has lived in Highland Park since 1947, said she’s “not happy” about the situation.
“I’m concerned about people breaking into my house,” she said. “The street lights should be on.
“I’m so flabbergasted I don’t even know what to do.”
Yopp said he understands the frustration and is trying to secure federal or state funding to restore lighting to the city’s neighborhoods.
“We’re no longer in debt, and our bill is lower each month,” he said. “But I’m certainly not happy about the level of lighting in the city, and I’m doing whatever I can to work something out.”