The theft of copper wire from light poles on Saint Paul’s streets and in parks cost the city more than $300,000 in 2021 and is likely to top that total in 2022. City Council members heard an update on April 13 regarding wire thefts and discussed ways to address the growing problem.
“(Wire theft) has been an ongoing issue in the city, but not to the extent it is now,” said Joe Spah, traffic operations division manager for the city’s Department of Public Works.
Council president Amy Brendmoen noted that in areas where thieves strike repeatedly, lights are put out of commission and leave the area unlit and unsafe. She and other council members want to find better ways to deter the thefts, rather than budget for them.
The city has about 38,000 public light poles in 16 different styles ranging from park walkway lights to tall cobra-style standards. In 2020, the losses from copper wire thefts were $104,600 for Public Works and $21,300 for Parks and Recreation. In 2021, the losses were $294,500 and $18,700, respectively. The numbers indicate what was repaired and replaced during the year, so the actual figures are likely higher.
Spah said light poles continue to be at risk for wire theft as copper prices hit a record $4.95 per pound recently. The thefts usually subside in the winter, but that was not the case this past one.
While light poles are the primary focus in Saint Paul, Spah said air conditioners are generally the most popular target for copper thieves.
Aluminum wiring could be used instead of copper, but Spah said aluminum is also prized by metal thieves. In recent years, the city has lost aluminum from public property, including sections of park bleachers.
Favored areas for thieves are streets that are less traveled at night outside of residential neighborhoods. “There aren’t a lot of eyes on those areas,” said Saint Paul Police Commander Kurt Hallstrom.
Thieves typically use power tools or sledgehammers to break into the base of light poles. Sometimes they more quietly remove the doors at the base of the pole, cut the wires and pull them out.
Hallstrom said that unless thieves are caught actually stealing wire, it is difficult to prove theft or seek criminal charges.
In 2020, the losses from copper wire thefts were $104,600 for Public Works and $21,300 for Parks and Recreation. In 2021, the losses were $294,500 and $18,700, respectively. The numbers indicate what was repaired and replaced during the year, so the actual figures are likely higher.
“We’ve actually stopped quite a few people in the proximity of the light poles,” he said. However, in areas where there is a lot of visibility in either direction, thieves will often just put down their tools and walk away.
Though the city has identification on the tubing around the wires, the tubing is easily removed. Light poles where copper has been replaced after a theft are often targeted again, sometimes several times over a matter of days.
Public Works has tried a variety of measures to crack down on wire theft, including using theft-deterrent screws on access doors, welding the doors shut and using smaller strands of copper wire. Council members asked if different pole designs, alarms or motion-activated lights could be used to deter thieves. Brendmoen suggested exploding dye packs that would mark a thief when a pole is broken into.
Another approach is to change the way wire is installed in the poles, as was done recently along Ayd Mill Road.
Council members asked about solar lighting, but that has design challenges, Spah said.
Parks and Recreation has used pole designs that make it harder for thieves to steal wire. Public Works could look at such options, but its streetlights must be designed with motor vehicles in mind.
The public can help in the fight against wire theft. 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 is not driving a city vehicle should be considered suspicious.
The city is also encouraging businesses and recyclers to reject any materials that are suspected to have come from city lighting systems and to contact authorities when those suspicions can be confirmed.
— Jane McClure
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