New Authority Working To Turn Lights On In Detroit

DETROIT—James Williams made a trip to Detroit's city hall last Wednesday in the hopes of attending a board meeting for the city's new Public Lighting Authority, instead he was one of several people who inadvertently ended up sitting in on a gun board hearing.

"I came here to the meeting today, because I'm fed up," Williams told Mode Shift, "and I sit here approximately an hour and no show from anyone from the lighting authority."

While Williams waited in the auditorium, the location listed on the agency's website, the meeting was actually taking place in a room across the hall. According to Peter Van Dyke of Berg Muirhead and Associates, a spokesman for the authority, the site had been changed on short notice due to a scheduling conflict beyond their control.

The change had been posted at the PLA's office, he said in an email, but the information hadn't been updated properly on the website because of a computer glitch. The agency says citizens were present at the meeting.

The Public Lighting Authority, established last year by Michigan's state legislature and approved in February by Detroit’s City Council, is an independent municipal entity, separate from the city, charged with developing and implementing a plan to improve the city’s public lighting system.

In June, Detroit's state-appointed Emergency Manager, Kevyn Orr, announced he was transferring customers from the city’s Public Lighting Department -- now in the process of being phased out -- to DTE Energy, a private utility company.

Last week’s PLA board meeting mix-up is perhaps an appropriate metaphor for the confusion and frustration many citizens feel about Detroit's lighting system.

According to the authority's website, the city's public lighting infrastructure is in a state of serious disrepair with about half its 88,000 streetlights out of order. Furthermore, with so many different organizations now involved with public lighting, it’s difficult for some citizens to figure out who to contact in order to get problems resolved.

Williams, a suburbanite who owns several properties in Detroit, has been trying to trying to get lights turned back on the 9100 block of Prevost Street for about three months.

"The lights are there, they just wouldn’t turn them on," he said. "They've cut the lights off on the street and, as a result of that, there's certain crimes that have taken place, dumping that has taken place and there's johns that have continuously been parking [there]."

He's asked for help from both the city’s lighting department and the new authority, but says they haven’t been responsive. "I don't think there's any difference that I can see," he said. "It's deplorable."

The lighting authority’s new CEO, Odis Jones, told Mode Shift that although his organization plans to gradually take over the repair broken fixtures, for the moment it’s still being handled through the city.

Jones himself has only been on the job a little over three weeks. A native Detroiter, he comes to the authority after more than two decades of working on municipal projects and public finance -- most recently as the economic development director for the City of Cincinnati. While he sympathizes with the concerns of Williams and other stakeholders, he says his agency needs time to do its job properly.

"People need to know that the PLA just got started,” he said. "We're going through our process, but we are a separate organization from the city. I have five board members that I report to -- all of those are residents of the city. They are living in the darkness just like everyone else."

This summer, the agency held a series of community meetings to gather input from Detroiters about what needs to be fixed. During last weeks’ meeting, the PLA board approved the hiring of two companies, ABE Engineering and Corby Energy, to survey the city’s lighting infrastructure.

Jones says they’ll be checking which lights aren’t working and investigating why they’re out. Together with the community input, that data will be used to put together a three-year plan to fix and modernize the system, which was originally designed in the late 1800s.

Because the authority has its own revenue stream, it will be immune from any of the potential financial fallout from Detroit’s current bankruptcy proceedings. Improvements will be funded through the sale of about $160 million in bonds that will be paid back with money from city utility taxes.

“I’m hopeful we’ll have a plan here over these next few weeks that gets approved by the board, and we'll quickly start to pivot and start to implement that by the end of this year," Jones said.

A possible strategy, now being mulled over, involves setting up test areas on Detroit’s east and west sides, getting them online, working out any kinks in the process and moving from those sites to other parts of the city.

Whatever course the board decides, Jones said he plans to work “expeditiously and efficiently” to improve the system. Despite last week’s meeting mix-up, he also wants to maintain an open door to citizens through continued neighborhood conversations and talks with community groups.

“I want to hear the drumbeat of my hometown,” he said. “I want them to be involved in this process and clued-in. It’s important to us … that it will be solution-driven by the residents of  Detroit. That’s the basis of what we’re doing.”

Citizens who are currently experiencing public lighting issues should call the PLD at 313-267-8140.

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