Sen. Tracey Eide said that one day after she agreed to sponsor a bill cracking down on copper wire and metal theft, she became a victim herself.
The Des Moines Democrat said thieves did more than $10,000 damage at a Federal Way office building she owns, stealing copper wires and pipes from an air conditioning unit.
Metal thieves wreak a lot of destruction in the process of retrieving their loot. According to a 2007 report by the U.S. Department of Energy, the theft of $100 worth of copper wire can cost $5,000 or more to repair.
In Olympia, city officials estimate it will cost taxpayers $30,000 to repair streetlights damaged in two cases of wire theft over the last couple of years. Mark Russell, the city’s interim director of transportation, said that in one incident, thieves wiped out an entire undeveloped subdivision.
Eide has proposed legislation that would, in part, allow law enforcement to seize the vehicles and tools thieves are caught using in the commission of the crime — money cities could use to offset the cost of repairs.
“Darkened streetlights can lead to traffic accidents and facilitate crime,” Eide said in a statement. “In both cases, taxpayers are punished when costly repairs are needed to restore lighting.”
Eide’s is one of several bills aimed at reducing metal theft that have been introduced in the Legislature this year.
Her proposal calls for a wire theft task force to investigate and prosecute wire thieves and would make it illegal for scrap metal businesses to buy copper from anyone who doesn’t have a special permit — a permit they would have to apply for with the county sheriff.
The City of Tacoma has already instituted similar restrictions on buying and selling scrap metal. An ordinance passed last year requires metal dealers to have permits and special license plates on vehicles transporting scrap metal. The city ordinance also requires documentation of all metal purchase transactions.
Eide said her proposed legislation was brought on behalf the City of Federal Way, which city officials say has experienced a dramatic increase in metal theft over the past few years.
Chris Carrel, communications coordinator for Federal Way, said metal theft cost city government $110,000 in 2012, up from $10,000 the previous year. The city had 112 reported incidents of metal theft last year, compared with seven incidents in 2010.
The increase follows a rise in the value of copper, which has gone up nearly 150 percent in the past five years, according to data from the London Metal Exchange.
Carrel said the city has welded shut the access panels on some streetlights, but that hasn’t thwarted thieves. When thieves targeted Celebration Park last August, they tied light poles to a vehicle and tore them down. Carrel said the thieves made off with $2,000 worth of wire, but repairs cost the city nearly $34,000.
“Part of the problem is that this is a very difficult crime to catch people doing,” Carrel said. “We’ve got a lot of soft targets. We have 4,200 streetlights in Federal Way. There’s just no way to protect that many.”
Rep. Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw, aims to take some of the allure out of metal theft. His House Bill 1756 would require all scrap metal businesses to pay sellers by nontransferable check. Right now, only transactions over $30 are required to be paid in such a way.
Hurst said he believes much of the metal theft is related to drug users stealing wire to pay for drugs.
“What do you do with a check?” Hurst said. “Sign it over and give it to your drug dealer?”
Hurst’s bill is scheduled for a public hearing Tuesday before the House Business and Financial Services Committee.Jimmy Lovaas: 360-943-7123 jimmy.lovaas@ thenewstribune.com