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.
The group says Alaska and North Dakota are the only states without laws addressing scrap metal theft, but it does not have information on whether any areas require licensing and background checks of vendors. A consultant for the Madison, Wis.-based Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, associated with the Justice Department, said that requiring licensing of dealers is not unusual, but that he wasn't aware of any jurisdictions with a "a blanket licensing provision."
Consultant Brandon Kooi, an associate professor of criminal justice at Aurora University in Aurora, Ill., said he "likes that this proposal is focusing on prevention." But he said it could lead to "gray markets" in which people without licenses would sell metal to those who do have them.
Cincinnati-based scrap recycler David J. Joseph Co. is concerned about the proposals, said Christopher Bedell, its vice president and general counsel.
"We have 70 recycling facilities across the country, and I know of no city that requires a criminal background check or licensing for vendors," he said.
Sellers likely would go outside of the city to sell scrap, Bedell said, even though city officials say they plan to urge surrounding areas to adopt similar rules.
"The licensing requirements for vendors will not solve the problem of theft," Bedell said. "They will just discourage recycling."
Kevin Lawlor, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc., wouldn't comment specifically on Cincinnati but said that the "vast majority" of scrap metal sales do not involve stolen items, and that laws discouraging vendors or dealers from recycling hurt the environment and the economy.
But "something has to be done to help the victims," who can face thousands of dollars in replacement and repair costs, Cincinnati Councilman Wendell Young said.
Among Ohio cities, Cleveland and Columbus have scrap metal ordinances, but officials say they do not require licensing or criminal background checks of vendors. George Speaks, Columbus' deputy director of public safety and a member of a statewide consortium looking at ways to strengthen Ohio's scrap metal law, said he doesn't know of any Ohio jurisdiction with those requirements.
State Sen. Bill Seitz is pushing legislation to toughen statewide law. The Cincinnati Republican's bill would require scrap dealers to take and keep photographs of scrap sellers. That would expand upon current requirements that sellers show identification cards.
If the Cincinnati licensing requirement is passed, Scarberry said, she'll try to buy one.
"I hope we can get one," she said. "If not, we'd just be out of luck. That would be tough."
Associated Press writer Dan Sewell contributed to this report.