EXCHANGE: Public's help sought to keep Decatur lights bright

 
 
Posted3/17/2019 7:00 AM
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DECATUR, Ill. -- Dianna Pace fell in love with the West End and moved near Fairview Park almost two years ago. She liked the neighborhood, but she also became aware of a lack of street lighting that gave her pause.

"Luckily, there are nice lights in the alleyway near my house that happens to be fairly decently lit," Pace said. "But I don't go out at night because I'm afraid to. I am afraid to get out because I don't know what's going on. And I know for a lot of other neighborhoods, there's very little light, if any."

Although Decatur has more than 10,000 street lamps, there's no set way to keep track of outages. That's important because while the number of property and violent crimes declined in 2018 compared to previous years, lighting remains a key way to prevent crime and keep residents safe at night.

"Criminals love the dark," said Officer George Kestner, the Decatur Police Department's crime prevention officer. "That's just about as simply as I can say it. Light is a deterrent."

The city has about 1,000 lights, mostly in downtown, Wabash Crossing, the West End and around Millikin University. Most are decorative and ornamental.

The other 9,000 are owned by Ameren Illinois and are on wooden poles.

Sue Lawson, who stepped down as president of the Coalition of Neighborhood Organizations in January, said both the city and Ameren have responded quickly to reports of outages.

"None of the issues have been turned down," she said. "They always find some way to work this out and they really have been good with it."

But where are the outages?

Decatur Public Works Director Matt Newell said they primarily find out about outages by people calling in. He said lighting is a priority.

"If residents have concerns, they can certainly call the Public Works Department and ask us about it," he said. "We have people that will go out and see if we can move lights or add lights; whatever's necessary."

The equipment isn't cheap. Newell said about $1.5 million is spent each year on street lighting.

He said the city is working to be more proactive when it comes to determining what lights need to be repaired or deciding where more lamps are needed. In the past, he said, the city would primarily ask Ameren to go out and review any neighborhoods or light fixtures in question.

These days, Newell said, the city sends its own crews to survey neighborhoods or work with Decatur police to pinpoint locations that could benefit from extra lighting.

"We have to be a lot more picky, because (street lights) do cost money and money's getting tight," Newell said. "We need to make sure that we get a good bang for our buck."

In recent years, both the city and Ameren have worked to make lighting in Decatur more energy-efficient, which can lead to financial savings.

Ameren estimates street lighting can account for as much as 40 percent of a municipality's energy budget. By upgrading to high-efficiency LED-based fixtures, municipalities can reduce energy and operations costs by as much as 30-50 percent.

LED lights "use less energy and they burn brighter and longer," said Marcelyn Love, an Ameren spokeswoman. "... They also require less maintenance."

Love said that Decatur was a part of a pilot program initiated by Ameren to replace all company-owned outdoor street lights with LED technology. The plan is to upgrade all of Ameren's street lights in a 10-year period, she said.

So far, 530 Ameren street lights within a 90-square block area of Decatur have been upgraded as a result of the pilot program, Love said.

"People ask sometimes why a utility company is engaging in energy efficiency," she said. "Energy efficiency benefits everyone. We're also a corporate citizen of Illinois. This is one way we can partner with our community."

In August, city council members approved a $2 million plan to retrofit outdoor lighting fixtures with energy-efficient LED bulbs - the savings of which is expected to be recouped within 13 years. Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls Inc. has guaranteed that the city will receive $2.5 million in savings over the course of 20 years as a result of the upgrading.

Newell said it took Johnson Controls about three months to upgrade many of the city's lights with LED bulbs.

"We still have some random (incandescent lights) around that weren't upgradeable," he said. "There's some lights that are very old, and they're just difficult to upgrade."

Alan Duesterhaus said that in December, he came upon crews working to replace many of the street lights in the Millikin Heights neighborhood and was pleased to see it. While he said that he hasn't noticed any concerning dark spots around his neighborhood, Duesterhaus said the historic style of the new lights plays into the Millikin Heights Neighborhood Group's plans for the area.

"If we're going to replace the street lights, we'd want to replace them with more period lighting as opposed to more modern ones," said Duesterhaus, president of the neighborhood group for Millikin Heights, the residential area directly east of Millikin University and to the north of Lincoln Park.

"We appreciated (the city) doing that, as it adds value to the historic section of the neighborhood," he said.

A study of new lights installed in New York City Housing Authority developments showed a 12 to 39 percent reduction in certain crimes. Chicago in 2017 also launched a plan to replace 85 percent of light fixtures with more reliable ones at a cost of $160 million.

Decatur in 2017 launched a wide-ranging neighborhood revitalization effort, focusing on improving quality of life issues and demolishing vacant homes. The council on Monday is scheduled to vote on demolishing 47 structures deemed unsafe.

In situations where street lighting may not completely illuminate a neighborhood at night, Decatur police encourage residents take a couple extra precautions at their home to help prevent crime.

Kestner said police recommend residents utilize interior lights, exterior porch lights, affordable motion sensors or more advanced motion-activated camera activity to monitor and help deter criminal activity in their neighborhoods.

He said the department is also keen on educating neighborhood organizations on how to protect themselves in other ways, such as organizing a neighborhood watch group or speaking to children about crime prevention.

The Decatur Police Department, Macon County Sheriff's Office, the Children's Museum of Illinois and the group Limitless Decatur & Macon County in May launched "Look, Stop & Lock" - a public service campaign urging people to lock doors to prevent crimes.

If something or someone looks suspicious in a darkened neighborhood area, Kestner said, residents are asked to contact police.

"Call in on that stuff," he said. "They don't have to call in and give their name. We tell them that because there's a lot of times where I talk to a group and ask 'Did you call us?' about something, and a lot of the time, we get 'no.'"

West End resident Pace said she has been inspired to lead the charge on the development of a neighborhood watch group in her area. The recently formed New West End Neighborhood Watch Group will have its first meeting on Monday on the second floor of the Decatur Public Library.

Pace said she formed the group because she doesn't feel safe in her neighborhood anymore due to criminal activity, which she said happens around there at both day and night.

"In any case, I never thought I would be doing anything like this," Pace said. "I felt like it was my place to do so. I'm hoping for it not to be just a watch group, but an active group that makes changes not only in the West End, but also in the rest of Decatur."

Lawson said a good neighbor is willing to watch over other neighbors' homes when necessary. She also said having great lighting on the streets, in any form, can make it much easier for neighbors to have each other's backs.

"With a lot of crimes when somebody needs help," she said, "being able to see what's going on is a big, big thing in my opinion."

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Source: (Decatur) Herald & Review, https://bit.ly/2Hfh8z0

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Information from: Herald & Review, http://www.herald-review.com

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