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Scrap metal: One man's treasure is city's headache

By Lisa Cornwell

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 14 2012 11:30 a.m. MST

In this photo taken Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012 shows employees of Cincinnati Recycling in East Price Hill move a tub of wires, brought by a customer, into their processing facility in Cincinnati, Ohio. Cincinnati, Ohio is working to curb thefts of scrap metal is considering stricter metal sales regulations described by some as unique within the state and perhaps in the country. Cincinnati City Council is expected to vote Wednesday on proposed changes to its municipal code. Proponents hope it will prevent thefts by making it more difficult for people to sell stolen metal.

The Cincinnati Enquirer, Gary Landers) MANDATORY CREDIT; NO SALES, Associated Press

CINCINNATI — Scavenging scrap metal to sell enables 28-year-old Milissa Scarberry and family of seven to get by. She advertises on Craigslist offering free pickup, knocks on doors when she sees piles of metal outside, or helps herself to junked metal left on the curb for trash removal.

She usually earns $40 or so a day, sometimes much more depending on the haul.

"We scrap every day," said the former restaurant worker, who has been unemployed for about a year. "We would really struggle without it."

She and other regular "scrappers" who say they go about their business honestly are worried about an unusually tough effort by Cincinnati officials looking to put a dent in metal thefts by requiring frequent sellers to buy expensive licenses and wait two days to get paid. The City Council could vote as soon as Wednesday.

Opponents argue the rules, which experts say would be among the nation's strictest, are an overreaction that would hurt honest metal vendors and dealers, possibly putting some out of business; send legitimate sales outside the city; undermine recycling efforts; and hurt people who are trying to make ends meet in tough times.

High prices for copper and other metals, combined with a struggling economy, have spurred thefts not only in Cincinnati, but also worldwide. Metal thieves steal catalytic converters from cars; aluminum siding and copper wiring from homes, businesses and construction sites; air conditioners from schools; and even tracks from railroads. Utility power lines and stations also have been targeted; thieves two weeks ago made off with 20 rolls of copper wire worth thousands of dollars from a Duke Energy storage room in nearby Monroe, driving off after loading up a stolen utility truck, police said.

Cincinnati police have described the problem as virtually out of control, estimating that the amount of metal being stolen each year is in the millions of dollars. That doesn't count property damage from break-ins and forceful stripping of plumbing lines, air conditioners and cables. Businesses along the Ohio River say they have been hit repeatedly; welding equipment company Weld Plus Inc. was victimized 10 times in eight weeks.

"It's extremely frustrating," said Paul Rensing, the company's president. Weld Plus has spent some $29,000 on new video surveillance, cameras that capture license tag numbers, and on added lighting and fencing. He said he couldn't wait for city action, about which he remains skeptical, to protect his business; metal thefts, including stolen air conditioners, have cost his and a half-dozen neighboring businesses hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Among the strictest of Cincinnati's proposals are requirements that scrap metal vendors pay an annual license fee ranging from $100 to $400, based on how much they earn in annual sales, and undergo criminal background checks for prior theft convictions. Residents would be allowed a free two-day permit to sell something like an old stove while cleaning out their homes. They would also have to wait two days to get paid by check, instead of cash on the spot; police say some scrappers are looking for quick cash to pay for street drugs.

States and cities around the country have been strengthening their scrap metal laws, but Cincinnati Councilman Cecil Thomas said legislation has often focused on addressing metal theft "after the fact," with penalties.

"We are trying to address it on the front end, and discourage individuals from committing the offense," Thomas said.

In the past two years, 18 state legislatures have passed scrap metal bills, including changes such as new or increased penalties for violators, tighter dealer licensing and required record-keeping or databases for metal transactions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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