HIGHLAND PARK, Mich. – The streets in the city of Highland Park have gotten noticeably darker lately. DTE Energy has finished removing more than half of Highland Park’s streetlights in a city-approved plan to pay off a $4 million unpaid city electric bills.
Highland Park has not paid an electric bill in full for at least five years. The city has been sending only partial payments on a $62,000-per-month streetlight fee. DTE Energy has removed 1,400 light poles from the city’s streets, and put in 200 new poles, replacing them with improved technology at intersections and schools, while leaving many neighborhoods in the dark.
DTE workers completed the project in late September, leaving just 500 streetlights in the city according to DTE spokesman Scott Simons. DTE and city officials agreed on the current plan in May, which will reduce costs to about $15,000 per month, Simons said.
“We’re trying to keep costs down so the taxpayers don’t have to pay extra money,” said Highland Park Mayor Hubert Yopp. Yopp also said after looking at the city’s crime statistics, he felt the move was the best option for the city.
The removal of the lights has led to an inevitable problem: Crime. Highland Park, a predominantly black city of just under 12,000 residents that is surrounded on all sides by Detroit, has one of the highest crime rates in the country. The chance of being a victim of violent crime in Highland Park is one in 11, while property crimes are one in 13. Business owners and residents alike feel that the dark streets are drawing in criminals like bees to honey.
“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. “I feel like I’m being punished. I’ve always paid my bills on time, but they took the street light anyway.”
Hargrove also said that a Highland Park police officer tried to extort money from him in order to beef up security around his business.
“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,” Hargrove told the Detroit News. “That’s like paying protection to the Mafia.”
Hargrove reported the incident to authorities, and Yopp says that he is investigating matter saying that residents already pay for police protection: “We’d better not be charging them twice.”
Even still, Yopp says that crime has not risen since the lights started disappearing.
“I had the police chief (Lorenzo Veal) work up the crime stats, and found that most of our burglaries are taking place during the daylight hours,” Yopp said. “Burglaries after dark are rare in Highland Park. That is not a lighting factor.”
Yopp also said that 90 percent of burglaries take place during the day when residents are away at work.
Highland Park has been plagued by decades of financial mismanagement and malfeasance, the likes that even amazes those in Detroit. In December 2000, former Gov. John Engler placed the city under the control of Emergency Financial Manager Ramona Pearson.
In December 2001, Highland Park’s police department was disbanded amid the mounting financial issues. The Wayne County Sheriff Department took over policing the city until 2007 when then-EFM Arthur Blackwell reinstated the police force. Blackwell was fired by the state in 2009 amid an embezzlement scandal.
The city returned to local control in July 2009, but that hasn’t helped improve the city’s condition or finances.
“I’m concerned about people breaking into my house,” said Jessie Flowers, 85, a Highland Park resident since 1947 told the Detroit News. “The street lights should be on. I’m so flabbergasted I don’t even know what to do.”
Yopp says that he understands the outrage and frustration of the city’s residents. He is trying to secure federal funding or state funding from Lansing to help restore lights to the 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.”