Fresno city officials finally fix streetlight problem (video)

The Fresno BeeNovember 19, 2013 

Fresno's long and sometimes chaotic struggle with darkened streetlights appears over.

Mayor Ashley Swearengin and three City Council members gathered on a street corner in northeast Fresno on Tuesday to trumpet the end of a massive streetlight-repair program.

City Hall at one time had a long list of streetlights and ground-level streetlight boxes victimized by copper-wire thieves. The last streetlight on that list was fixed during the news conference.

Fixing all those streetlights "was a great accomplishment," Swearengin said.

Council Member Lee Brand, who pushed harder than anyone at City Hall to fix the problem, took a bow as author of a bill to fund the effort.

Council Members Paul Caprioglio and Steve Brandau rode in a couple of city "cherry-pickers" high above Perrin Avenue to change a streetlight bulb.

All four grabbed a screwdriver and scratched their initials in soft concrete encasing the streetlight maintenance box. The idea is copper-wire thieves can't get at the valuable recyclable without a jackhammer.

"Light up Fresno," Caprioglio said, making sure to avoid any hint of a comma between the second and third words.

The elected officials' satisfaction was hard-earned.

Fresno's streetlight system for years was the Mother Lode for copper-wire thieves. The wiring for streetlights in many older neighborhoods is located on poles -- too risky for most bad guys. But about 75% of the city's approximately 42,000 streetlights are wired at ground level.

Maintenance boxes with easy-to-open lids are in the sidewalk. As Public Works Director Patrick Wiemiller noted, easy access for city crews also meant easy access for thieves.

A couple of snips in the dead of night with a wire-cutter allowed thieves to steal hundreds of feet of copper wire at a time, a lucrative haul when taken to a recycling center.

Entire blocks went dark. Each of the seven council districts was hit. City crews couldn't replace wire fast enough to keep up with the thieves. Fresnans calling City Hall to complain were told to wait a year or two.

Then the Great Recession hit with force in 2009-2010. City Hall struggled to keep cops on patrol. Streetlights weren't a priority. Some city officials even suggested voluntarily darkening 10,000 streetlights to save money.

City officials soon changed their minds. Brand with the help of Wiemiller's team pitched his Streetlight Funding Act in March 2012. It was a complex two-step idea, but the council and Swearengin bought it.

Step one was filling thousands of ground-level maintenance boxes for working streetlights with concrete. The stuff in those boxes can go years without care, Wiemiller said.

Brand estimated the cost of step one at less than $500,000.

Step two was going back to 5,000 or so streetlights darkened by thieves, fixing what was wrong, then pouring the concrete. Brand said Tuesday he couldn't estimate the cost because it was a longer, more involved process.

Tuesday's celebration put a ribbon on step two. City officials say the future for Fresno streetlights is mere routine maintenance.

The maintenance box's soft concrete was a legacy-leaving temptation too strong for the politicians to resist.

Swearengin added the date -- 11-19-13 -- to her initials. Brand, perhaps because he already had pride of place, was content with a simple "LB." Caprioglio signed "CAP" (his City Hall nickname) in letters big enough to catch John Hancock's attention. Brandau, a stickler for detail, made sure the "S" and the "B" had periods.

Even at high noon, the repaired streetlight's beacon was visible from the sidewalk.

It is, Swearengin said, "a symbol of city services getting back on track."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272 or ghostetter@fresnobee.com. Read his City Beat blog at news.fresnobeehive.com/city-beat.

The Fresno Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service