Scrap metal plan gets hammered out

 Messenger photo by John Matuszak

Mountains of scrap wait to be baled and shipped out from Masser Metals on Lamb Avenue. Columbus City Council is looking for a way to discourage thieves who rip off everything from manhole covers to aluminum siding, to be sold to area dealers. Owner Mark Masser and other business owners are skeptical that the proposed ordinance will deter theft, and worry that mandates will harm their operations.

Columbus City Councilman Andrew Ginther has revised proposals to restrict scrap metal sales, meant to deter thieves, but dealers are still complaining that the law could sink their businesses.

"This legislation won’t stop theft, and it will interdict the flow of commerce" in Columbus, argued attorney Jeff McNealey, representing scrap dealers at a July 12 hearing. "It will drive the problem out into the county, and other areas" without the restrictions, he added.

Ginther, chairman of the safety committee, first introduced the legislation in March, aimed at deterring the growing problem of scrap metal theft.

He brought the amended ordinance to council July 16, with a second reading and possible vote scheduled for July 23.

Things haven’t improved much since the first meeting. The councilman reported on the recent theft of everything from $38,000 in beer kegs from Hill Distributing to an air conditioner from the Parkview United Methodist Church on the city’s west side.

To counter the crimes, Ginther recommends licensing of scrap metal dealers, and requiring photo identification and fingerprints, as well as proof of ownership, from customers selling metal.

The legislation also includes "tag and hold" provisions, mandating dealers to retain items for seven days before reselling the metal, and reporting of transactions to police.

Dealers object to these provisions, complaining about the burden of paperwork and keeping vehicles and large quantities of metal on their lots.

Following the initial hearing, Ginther convened a working group to revise the legislation to make it less burdensome on dealers.

According to Assistant City Attorney Josh Cox, the ordinance now focuses on retail sales, and exempts industrial, commercial, governmental and non-profit accounts.

It would limit the purchase of consumer appliances, such as air conditioners, water heaters, refrigerators and washing machines, to two per person, per day, without proof of ownership.

The purchase of items such as beer kegs, spooled wire, manhole covers, and guard rails, would be prohibited without proof of ownership.

On the "tag and hold" requirements, dealers would have a choice of keeping items for seven days, or using an electronic reporting system connected to the police department.

Licensing of dealers, with a $500 annual fee (up from $150), and photo ID and fingerprints from customers, remains in place. The fees would pay for the reporting software and other costs, Ginther said.

Assistant Public Safety Director George Speaks suggested that catalytic converters, a magnet for thieves, be included among the items with the daily limit.

Dealers should be required to hold vehicles for two days before reselling, and frequently purloined items such as copper wire should be held for three days, to allow police to find stolen goods, Speaks added.

Public Safety Director Mitchell Brown praised the legislation, saying it would "serve as a model that will be adopted by police across the state and the country."

McNealey said his clients would prefer a statewide, rather than a local, approach to the problem of scrap metal theft.

The attorney called the "tag and hold" provisions "totally anathema to the scrap metal industry," where quick turnover is common practice. "We are not pawnshops."

Dick Hauser, a Grove City resident and scrap metal dealer who works with the state of Ohio, agreed that the ordinances would weigh heavily on dealers.

"You’re going to legislate Columbus out of the scrap metal business," Hauser said. "There is a fine line between enforcing it and throwing the enforcement on one industry."

But residents were adamant that something must be done to stamp out the crime wave.

Myra Syfax, a Marion-Franklin resident and member of Reeb Hosock Baptist Church, said she has seen aluminum siding and a water heater taken from the vacant house next door, in broad daylight. Her church has also been victimized.

Gary Baker, a landlord and chairman of the Greater Hilltop Area Commission, testified that thieves cutting into pipes have flooded basements and hit gas lines, creating the risk of explosion.

Property owners suffer thousands of dollars in damages caused by crooks who net a few dollars on the stolen items.

It’s up to Columbus to bring the hammer down, Baker asserted. "We cannot wait for others to act. And there is no guarantee that they will."

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