By Marshall Powell, from Detroit Uncovered
Detroit soon will jettison its Public Lighting Department, according to a city hall insider.
“Detroit will be out of the public lighting business by the time your business is done,” Charles Beckham told Detroit Charter Commissioners, who must finish their work by the end of 2012.
Beckham, Mayor Bing’s former chief administrative officer, was the guest speaker at a Commission meeting Sept. 14. He was invited to discuss the City’s enterprise departments, described as those that generate relatively significant revenue such as the municipal parking, building and safety, and water and sewerage departments.
No stranger to Detroit politics, having been part of the good and sad of it, Beckham was Water and Sewerage director under Coleman A. Young, later joined the Kilpatrick administration and helped run Mayor Bing’s 2009 campaign. Beckham served as the Mayor’s chief administrative officer until he resigned in May.
“The move is not to necessarily sell public lighting. That’s always controversial,” Beckham said. “These assets in the public lighting department cannot be sold without the approval of voters,” he said referring to the “old and antiquated” equipment at Detroit’s Mistersky Power Plant.
Russ Bellant, a retired city worker, agrees with Beckham but only to a point. Citizens readily voice opposition to selling city assets but in this case that’s not the threat, Bellant said. DTE never wanted to buy Misterksy, according to Bellant. “They just wanted it to go out of business to eliminate the competition.”
“Although the PLD can’t be sold, it can be dismantled,” Bellant says. He contends that dismantling the PLD is exactly what mayors have been doing for the last 50 years. “Mayors have been under a lot of pressure and persuasion from the downtown business community, including DTE.”
Bellant says Mayor Bing is stripping Public Lighting of its ability to generate revenue. “What Bing is doing is he’s implementing the death of the public lighting department.”
Bellant says the Water and Sewerage Department and Wayne State University are no longer PLD customers.
“Wayne State was a multi-million dollar a year customer. If you have these sources as customers, you can sell bonds. People who sell bonds know these folks are going to pay their bills.” Consequently, Bellant considers empty and shortsighted arguments that the city can’t support the PLD.
Beckham disagrees. “We could save a lot of money by shutting down Mistersky and buying all our energy from DTE,” he told those attending the meeting held at the Fellowship Chapel church on the City’s west side.
Shortly after taking office, Mayor Bing announced plans to decommission Mistersky within 90 days in favor of buying energy for DTE. The city currently buys 75 percent of its energy from DTE, according to Beckham. Mistersky is still up and running, although Beckham described it as feeble and lacking capacity to serve the city’s needs.
From Diane Bukowski: The Public Lighting Department was originally meant to provide power to the entire city, including residences. Cables were laid in the 1920’s to accomplish this goal. The city of Lansing has its own Public Power and Lighting Department. Instead of turning PLD over to DTE, the city should carry out the department’s original goal. This would allow voters to have some regulatory power through elected officials over affordable rates, maintenance, and shut-off policies.
Former city auditor Joe Harris published a report several years ago explaining how the city could use the same cables laid for PLD to establish its own cable company at lower rates. The city of Wyandotte, Portland, Oregon and numerous other cities across the U.S. provide their own cable TV. Providing power and cable services to Detroit’s residents would generate revenue.
Instead, Bing, who sat on DTE’s board for 20 years and is closely allied with its CEO Anthony Earley, wants to hand PLD over to a company that has shut off thousands of Detroiters and caused the deaths of dozens. DTE’s failure to maintain its lines and trim trees in the city’s poor neighborhoods recently resulted in fires which destroyed homes, garages, and other property throughout the city.
Commissioners selected Tonya Myers Phillips, an attorney with Michigan Legal Services who placed 10th in last year’s election, to fill the vacancy created by Freman Hendrix’s resignation. Commissioner Jenice Mitchell Ford replaced Hendrix as the group’s chairperson.
From Diane Bukowski: Ms. Myers Phillips reports that it was only after a protracted battle, and three voting sessions, that her installation took place. Pressure from the audience, who insisted that the logical solution was to install the 10th highest vote-getter, instead of a candidate preferred by former chair Freman Hendrix, resulted in this victory. Detroiters must continue to exert such pressure to prevent the Commission from gutting progressive portions of the charter, such as Section 6-307 on privatization.