Council approves hammered-out ordinance

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 Messenger photo by John Matuszak

Columbus City Councilman Andrew Ginther holds up $14 worth of metal stolen from Reeb-Hosack Community Baptist Church and recovered from a local scrap yard. It cost the church $14,000 to replace the air conditioner where the metal came from. City Council on July 23 passed legislation to regulate scrap dealers and deter theft.

The thieves who tore out the air conditioner from Reeb-Hosack Community Baptist Church netted $14 when they sold the copper pipes to a local scrap yard.

It cost the church $14,000 to replace the unit, now enclosed in a padlocked cage.

Insurance covered the loss, but it still means higher premiums for the church that has been hit four times by criminals. The congregation is also considering security cameras and motion-activated lighting.

That money could have been used for community projects and summer field trips for kids, said Pastor John Little, who joined Columbus City Councilman Andrew Ginther at the church July 23 to discuss legislation to regulate scrap metal sales and deter theft.

That evening, council passed the ordinance first proposed by Ginther in March and since revised to lessen some of the burden on dealers.

Illustrating the rampant nature of scrap metal theft, spurred by increased prices for the materials, one of Reeb-Hosack’s downspouts had been ripped from the side of the building the night before the news conference.

Churches are particularly vulnerable because they are largely unoccupied during most of the week, Ginther noted. But they aren’t the only victims. Houses have been ravaged for copper pipes and gutters, and everything from manhole covers and guard rails to the copper roofing from Columbus City Hall has been snatched.

Michael Weinman, the police department’s legislative liaison, said that unregulated tow trucks prowl alleys for cars that they can hook and haul to scrap yards. Once purchased for as little as $200, scrap yards quickly shred the cars before police can track them down.

"Too many (dealers) are turning their heads" to take in stolen goods, Weinman said.

Ginther hopes his ordinance will keep these dealers from turning a blind eye to obvious theft.

"The industry has been unable to regulate itself," the councilman said.

The ordinance will require dealers to be licensed, with a $500 annual fee. It will put in place an electronic system for scrap dealers to report their transactions to police, replacing paper  records.

Businesses that do not use the computer system will be required to "tag and hold" items for seven days.

Ginther expects the electronic system to be available within six to nine months.

People selling scrap will be required to provide photo identification and give a thumbprint. They will have to provide a title when selling a vehicle, and buyers must obtain vehicle identification numbers.

Proof of ownership will be required for selling frequently stolen items, such as beer kegs, metal wire and manhole covers. Without proof of ownership, sellers will be restricted to two transactions a day for such items as washing machines or air conditioners.

Ginther said Columbus is taking the most comprehensive approach to fighting scrap metal theft of any city, and is being contacted from across the state and as far away as Nevada about its ordinance.

Dealers have complained that the law places a burden on them that will severely cut into their business. They would prefer a statewide approach so that thieves will not gravitate to unregulated areas.

Providing counterpoint to the city’s arguments, scrap collector Don Ruby happened by the outdoor event with his trailer loaded with discarded items.

Ruby said that he finds scrap in Dumpsters and piled up along curbs and alleys. He also buys the rights to take metal from vacant houses.

Such a load brings in about $75, and he collects two or three loads a day.

"Scrappers don’t make that much," he said.

Having to pay a $500 license fee would devastate his business, Ruby said, and the other regulations would be an added obstacle.

"It would slow me down and cost me money while I’m trying to make an honest living," Ruby said.

He suggested that the city focus on the motivation for the thieves trying to scrape up a few dollars at a time – drug addiction.

More parking, quicker tickets

Council passed legislation to approve $600,000 for Capitol South to design two downtown parking facilities in the Fourth and Gay streets area and the RiverSouth District, just south of The Lazarus Building, and provide assistance to the city acquire the land.  This funding will also be used to create a special assessment district and non-school tax increment financing districts to support the construction and/or operation of such downtown parking facilities.

The 1,400 parking spaces will replace those from surface lots being lost due to downtown housing development and the construction of a new county courthouse.

The project could make it easier to find a parking space, and another proposal will make the process of receiving a traffic ticket quicker, as well.

Council approved spending $54,998 for a pilot program to equip five police cruisers with electronic-ticket computers that will allow the officers to issue a ticket within 60 seconds and get back to patrolling the streets.

The computers will also link the officers to the Franklin County Municipal Court, the Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation and the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, to determine if the driver has any outstanding warrants.

The information will also show if the person has already paid a fine, avoiding a trip to jail, Councilwoman Charleta Tavares pointed out.

The project is being financed through grants and an $18,000 contribution from the county clerk’s office.

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