New St. Paul budget includes $500K to address copper wire theft

New St. Paul budget includes $500k to address copper wire theft

New St. Paul budget includes $500k to address copper wire theft

The City of St. Paul will spend $500,000 next year to address copper wire theft from street lights as a new item in the 2024 budget.

According to the city’s public works department, thousands of street lights have been damaged so far in 2023.

“The price for copper spiked when the pandemic hit, so low-level thieves and some organized efforts have seen an opportunity to make a little bit of money by breaking into our street lights, stealing the copper, stripping it and reselling it,” said Public Works Director Sean Kershaw.

Kershaw said this problem has grown exponentially in the last few years.

The replacement of wire has cost the city almost a million dollars so far this year.

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By comparison, the city spent about $100,000 to replace stolen copper wire in 2019.

By 2022, that had grown to more than $450,000.

“All you can do is roll your eyes,” said Lee Engele, who has lived near Como Park for 37 years. “It has been a constant problem these last couple of years. As soon as they repair them, thieves are coming and taking the copper wire again.”

Engele said the broken lights have caused many city streets and neighborhoods to go dark, presenting a safety problem for residents.

“When you look out the door at night, it’s totally dark. To hear the noises and the bumps in the night and not be able to see what’s going on is a little frightening,” Engele said.

Kershaw said the city has tried at least a dozen strategies to try to deal with this issue, including theft deterrent screws, metal bands around the poles, installing silent alarms so police are notified about a theft in progress and welding the access doors shut.

“We are trying every strategy that’s possible with the money we have but what we’re finding is they’re expanding their efforts too,” Kershaw said. “They will literally knock over a light pole or hit it with a sledgehammer to get at the copper.”

Kershaw said thieves are not only targeting street lights but now also traffic signals and telephone systems, noting it is time for the city to take next steps in addressing this issue.

City Council voted late Wednesday to approve the 2024 budget, a nearly $845 million spending plan that includes a 3.7% increase in property taxes.

The copper wire theft funding is a one-time appropriation of $500,000 that will go toward street light repairs and new theft prevention strategies.

“We’ve ordered about 90 new poles and those poles have access panels that are up higher and we think will be more theft resilient,” Kershaw said.

The new light poles will be installed in the spring.

“Anything will help,” Engele said. “New solutions need to be found. I want this fixed. We all want it fixed.”

The public works department is trying some other new strategies as well, such as using smaller wire, so it is worth less in resale and putting “City of St. Paul” branding on the copper wire so scrap companies will know it has been stolen.

Kershaw believes bigger solutions for this issue must be initiated at the State Capitol, similar to how lawmakers have handled problems surrounding catalytic converter theft.

“That’s what Minnesota has to do. We’ve got to go to the Legislature. The solution of this really can’t be found with maintenance on street lights. We need to make it harder to sell stolen copper wire,” Kershaw said.

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