When Frogtown Farm and Park opened in 2015, one of many welcomed featured was lighting along paths and in other areas. Residents felt safer walking through the area at dusk.
But the park is one of several places in St. Paul where street and park lights have repeatedly had valuable copper wiring stolen. The theft and loss of park lighting prompted a Long-Range Capital Improvement Budget (CIB) request and plea for help.
The south end of Como Lake, Merriam Park’s namesake park, and the Jessamine-MacKubin area are other places hit by wire thieves. Some locations around St. Paul have been hit repeatedly, much to the consternation of public works and parks and recreation staff.
“(Wire theft) has always been kind of an ongoing issue in the city of St. Paul, but not to the extent it is now,” said Joe Spah, traffic operations division manager for the St. Paul Department of Public Works. Theft of copper wire from street and park light poles cost the city more than $300,000 in 2021. The stealing is on track to top that total in 2022. City council members in April heard an update on the wire theft issue. The city council wants to find ways to deter theft, rather than budgeting for it.
Favored areas for thieves are streets that are less traveled at night, outside of residential neighborhoods, said St. Paul Police Commander Kurt Hallstrom. “There’s not a lot of eyes on those areas.”
St. Paul City Council President Amy Brendmoen said that in areas where thieves strike repeatedly and take street lights out of commissions, places are left unlit and unsafe.
As copper becomes more valuable and scrap yards pay more, Spah said, lights are at risk. Copper prices hit a record $4.95 per pound recently. Thefts usually subside in the winter but that wasn’t the case this year.
Copper wire theft is a national problem. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates copper wire thefts at $1 billion per year nationwide. Los Angeles sees thefts tallying $3.9 million per year. While light poles are a focus in St. Paul, Spah said that air conditioners are actually the most popular target.
St. Paul has about 38,000 public lighting poles, in 16 different styles ranging from park walkway lights to tall cobra style poles. All are vulnerable to copper wire theft. The city uses marked tubing on wires but that is easily removed.
In 2020, public works losses from copy wire theft were at $104,600. Parks and recreation sustained $21,300 in losses. In 2021, those losses were estimated at $294,500 for public works and $18,700 for parks and recreation.
Those numbers indicate what was repaired and replaced during a year, so losses are likely higher. Replacing wiring means taking money out of other maintenance budgets as the city doesn’t budget for such losses, Spah said.
Many ideas have been considered. Welding pole bases shut means not having access when repairs are needed. Also, some thieves will use a motor vehicle to break the metal pole. Aluminum wiring could be used, but Spah said aluminum is also prized by metal thieves.
Thieves typically use power tools, sledgehammers or vehicles to break into the base of light poles. Sometimes thieves quietly remove the doors at the posts’ base, cut the wires, and then come back to pull the wires out. Removing the wires can be a quick process.
Public works has tried a variety of measures to quell wire theft, including use of theft-deterrent screws to close access doors, and using smaller strands of wire. Council members asked if different pole design, alarms or motion-activated lights could be used to deter thieves. Council members asked about solar lighting but that itself has design challenges, said Spah. Fixtures may be too heavy for the poles the city uses.
Parks and recreation has used pole designs that make it harder for thieves to steal wire and public works did that when new lights were installed along Ayd Mill Road. Public works could look at such options, but street light poles must be designed with motor vehicle crashes in mind.
Anyone seeing a theft in progress or suspicious activity around light poles should call 911. Someone who appears to be working on a light pole but isn’t driving a city vehicle should be considered suspicious. Report non-working lights at stpaul.gov/streetlights, by filling out an online form.
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