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Metal Equipment Thefts Prove Costly
Thieves have been lifting a lot of metal items like copper wiring, iron storm drain gratings, even water meter covers from Riverbank's streets, said Public Works officials. It's not difficult to see why. The value of copper keeps going up and a few hundred feet of electrical wire brings a tidy sum from the scrap metal dealer, they said.

But it's irritating to people responsible for keeping street lights and other equipment in operation, is costly and time consuming to replace and can be dangerous in the case of missing equipment.

City Assistant Development Services Director Mike Riddell reported that in Ceres, from which he was recently hired, a woman stepped out of her car in a parking lot and fell into a storm drain hole from which the grating had been stolen.

"They've taken a lot of street light wiring, 600 to 900 feet in the last six months," said Public Works Streets Supervisor Darrell Green of the thefts. "From along the median down Oakdale Road all the way from Crawford to Claribel and along Crawford east to Squire Wells. They're popping the lids on the junction boxes and clipping the wires during the day, then coming back at night to fasten the wire to a vehicle and pull it all out in one go."

Most of the copper lost was wiring to streetlights. Public Works found out it was missing when the department got complaints from residents about lights being out.

"It must be somebody who knows what they're about, knows which wires to cut and avoid being electrocuted," said Green.

He said the thieves are likely selling the copper wire to recycling dealers after they've stripped the plastic insulation and rolled it onto spools. To deter thieves, Stanislaus County government has required scrap metal recyclers to require identities and keep records on their sellers.

"But I don't think they do that every time," "Green said of the dealers. "Or the thieves could be dealing directly with shady contractors."

The cost to the city to replace that copper wiring on Oakdale and Crawford roads was $6,500 in labor and materials during April of 2010 and $7,300 for two repeated thefts in the same location during 2011, said Senior Management Analyst Kathleen Kleek.

Public Works has also seen storm drain gratings stolen, six or seven of them within the last two weeks including five gratings all within the River Cove subdivision.

"They only weigh about 50 pounds. One man can lift it on his own. Then they cut it up for sale as scrap metal," said Green.

Water Division Supervisor Eric Tackett reported he's been losing some valve covers, two of them recently taken on Fifth Street. He also noted some water meter box lids stolen from the alley behind the El Ranchito Restaurant. He's replaced them with concrete lids in which the thieves won't be interested. But the concrete does not hold up as well against the wear and tear of traffic, especially garbage trucks, and will need more frequent replacement.

"There's definitely an increase in metal theft recently," said Development Services Director J.D. Hightower. "Every time the scrap value price of metal goes up, so do the thefts. The question is how best to implement the county ordinance on recycling. Recyclers and buyers of scrap metal are supposed to collect IDs and photos of sellers. The county ordinance is great, very comprehensive. But the recycler in day to day business is not always doing what he's supposed to do."

Hightower said he hadn't heard of manhole covers going missing but it would only need two or three strong guys to steal one. Being made of iron they are not as valuable as copper wiring and much more difficult to carry away.

The current price that Oakdale Recycling Center pays for copper is $1 per pound for wire with the plastic insulation still on it and $1.70 for copper wire with the insulation removed - that's a lot of work - said a representative.

The information the recycler must require from a seller of scrap metal worth more than $20 are enforced by the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department and extensive, she added.

The seller must provide a valid ID, a thumbprint, records of the make and model of his vehicle including license plate number and photos of both the seller and the vehicle.