Tacoma wire thieves stay ahead of city repairmen

Staff writerFebruary 12, 2014 

During the darkest part of December, the lights on Kris Blondin’s street went out.

For the third time in two years, thieves had ripped out the copper wiring used to power the lights near her Central Tacoma home. Then came the bad news. The city told a neighbor they might have the outage fixed — in September.

“If you come to my neighborhood after dark, it’s creepy,” Blondin said, worrying that she might hit a pedestrian on her neighborhood’s dark streets.

Blondin was pleasantly surprised to find her street lights working again last week, far ahead of the city’s repair schedule. City officials said the fix was an easy one, so they were able to get to her neighborhood quicker than anticipated.

Not everyone is so lucky. Some neighborhoods still face months of waiting, due in part to a recent rise in wire thefts in Tacoma.

In the first 10 months of 2013, Tacoma residents reported 11 outages. In each case, thieves had ripped out the copper wiring from a conduit in the ground, darkening anywhere from a single light to a string of lights a block or more long. Thieves sometimes also take wire from the poles leading to the lights themselves.

Late last year, the pace of wire thefts picked up considerably. In November and December, the city learned of 56 more outages. Since the beginning of the year, 18 more circuits have been damaged. The increase has the city scrambling to respond.

Rae Bailey, division manager of street operations, said he’s frustrated “that there’s no conscience about stealing stuff. The amount of time and effort that it takes to replace these circuits far exceeds the amount of money they get for the copper.

“We have a lot of other maintenance we should be doing, but instead we are chasing them around the city.”

Reports of new outages have taken a dip in recent weeks following the Jan. 13 arrests of two men in connection with a wire theft near Lister Elementary School that caused $7,400 in damage. Both men face charges of second-degree theft and malicious mischief.

One of the men allegedly recycled wire 17 times last year, according to court documents. During two of his trips, he recycled 96 pounds of wire and received $153.42, or about $1.67 a pound.

Police arrested another man for wire theft last week, said Tacoma Police spokeswoman Loretta Cool. Investigators are looking into whether any of the men are connected to other wire thefts in the city, Cool said.

The arrests have not halted the plundering of city wire, though.

The city has one crew repairing the outages and is training more people to help. Soon, three crews will be fixing the damage. By April the city should have repaired all outages that were reported last year.

Some, such as the lights on Blondin’s street, might be fixed sooner depending on the availability of materials or the complexity of repair, Public Works Director Kurtis Kingsolver said. Outages are fixed as residents report them.

Kingsolver said that very few of the city’s approximately 21,600 street lights are without power. But for the people who live on darkened streets, “it’s not minimal and we recognize that.”

The cost isn’t minimal either. For each broken light or section of lights, repairs cost between $5,000 and $20,000. Part of the cost is the wire, but the most expensive part is the time it takes to repair busted circuits.

The city spent $545,750 from November through mid-February to repair 59 outages. Bailey said the city expects to spend another $240,500 just for the 26 outages that remained as of Tuesday.

Wire theft can be a difficult crime to prevent, Kingsolver said. The city has 9,500 junction boxes, which serve several blocks of lights each. City staff are examining technology that would notify the city immediately when and where the power goes out to city streetlights.

Bailey said the city is also replacing the stolen copper wiring with aluminum wire, which doesn’t fetch as high of a price on the scrap market.

Kingsolver said the city depends on observant citizens to report suspicious activity. He said some thieves will prepare a site and later return to quickly strip out the wire.

“If you see suspicious activity, let us know so we can get someone out there to take a look,” he said.

Work on street lights is completed by City of Tacoma or Tacoma Public Utilities workers using marked vehicles.

Cool said people should call 911 if they spot someone stealing wire. Those with tips should call the non-emergency number, 253-798-4721. To report an outage within the city limits, call 311.

Kate Martin: 253-597-8542

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