Copper thefts may cost city $1 million

KANSAS CITY, KANSAS - The theft of copper cables from streetlights could cost Kansas City more than $1 million this year — and city officials aren't sure where they will find the money.

At a recent meeting, City Engineer Greg Rokos said the city has completed or was currently repairing lights at more than 30 locations at a cost of more than $270,000. But another 18 locations are still awaiting repairs, at a projected cost of $152,000.

"Neighborhoods are being told, `We can't fix your lights.'" said Councilwoman Deb Hermann.

A Kansas City police officer e-mailed Hermann's office warning that some northern Kansas City neighborhoods are safety risks as winter approaches.

"It is so dark in this area that even with headlights it is hard to see," the officer wrote. "Imagine when the snow comes and we have difficulty seeing and then get into an accident. Is a death worth the cost of copper?"

The city has paid for copper theft repairs out of special maintenance funds but the city needs to replenish that money to cover other maintenance. Budget analysts don't know where to find that money, especially with revenues declining.

The problem is not limited to Kansas City. In Johnson County, Kan., last summer, copper thieves were so active that police asked residents to watch for anyone behaving suspiciously around streetlights. Shawnee police said damage to five lights there would cost about $30,000 to fix.

Last week, Kansas City police were investigating the theft of $500,000 worth of copper wiring from backup power lines owned by Kansas City Power & Light Co. at Richard L. Berkley Riverfront Park.

Port Authority Executive Director Vincent Gauthier said security cameras were being installed in the park and along the Riverfront Heritage Trail.

The repairs in Kansas City are being done by Custom Lighting Services. The company's general manager, Eric Vogel, told council members that the problem has worsened in the last six months since the price of copper spiked.

Thieves may get only $50 to $100 worth of copper, but repairing a streetlight can cost the city $2,000 or more.

Vogel's company is trying a variety of preventive measures. The most successful approach, which is neither cheap nor easy, is tying cable around pole bases below ground, which prevents thieves from easily yanking the copper wiring away.

The real solution is to stop dealers from buying stolen scrap metal, Vogel said.

The state of Missouri, Kansas City and Wyandotte County all recently adopted regulations that require dealers to keep records of the seller's identification and information about the property being sold to try to ensure it is not stolen. Kansas City can shut down businesses that don't comply.

"I don't think our ordinance or the new state law have been in effect long enough to judge their impact," Councilman John Sharp said.

And a city task force has started monthly meetings to improve communication among police, prosecutors and scrap metal dealers.

Sharp, who is involved with the task force, said a number of scrap metal dealers were willing to work on the problem.

"I think generally they are trying to be good corporate citizens," he said. "Part of our focus has to be on working with the Police Department to make sure metal theft is a high priority for the department."


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