The Things They Steel: Park Thieves Prefer Copper but Will Take Any Other Metal at Great Costs to Taxpayers

Article excerpt

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Whether it is the lingering effects of the recession or just a nasty uptick in bad behavior among thieves specializing in construction materials, there has been an astonishing increase in the theft of metal from public parks in the past three years. Many public park and recreation agencies across the country are reporting the highest level of metal theft from parks that they have ever seen.

At the going rate of $4 per pound, copper tops the list of metals being systematically ripped out of park buildings and structures. Still, no metal appears to be safe: Bronze, aluminum, steel, stainless steel, and wrought-iron have been wrenched from park fixtures and buildings and sold to scrap recyclers. Thieves have stolen metal downspouts, aluminum planks from bleachers, backflow preventers from irrigation systems, bronze memorial plaques, pool ladders, park signs, water fountains, fire-fighting nozzles, and even the 300-pound bronze bust of a city father. The losses have been in the millions of dollars per year and going forward they could exceed $10 million annually, according to park administrators.

A Widespread Phenomenon

In many park systems today, no metal is safe, no matter how securely it is bolted, welded, epoxied, or fastened by park maintenance workers. Thieves have used metal saws to cut the middle out of bleacher sections, not even wasting time to unbolt the entire plank seats from the base of the bleacher. Like heavy-metal woodchucks, thieves have even burrowed through the guts of rooftop air-conditioning units to steal the copper condensing coils. Metal thieves have ripped up roofing from park structures, knocked holes into concrete block walls to get to copper wiring and plumbing, and tied the ends of electrical wires from athletic light standards to the bumpers of trucks, driving away to strip the wires out of the poles. "We have lost miles of wire from light poles," says Greg Bayor, director of Baltimore City Recreation and Parks.

Nor do thefts occur only in the middle of the night. Agencies report daylight thefts of chain-link fence, wiring, and fixtures from bail field lights (by thieves in a bucket truck, no less), and in one jaw-dropping example of audacity, the theft of an entire set of bleachers across the street from the home of a Richmond, Virginia, area police officer. Thieves drove up, chained the portable bleachers to a pick-up truck, and dragged them away in the middle of the day. The police officer says he thought the thieves worked for the parks department.

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Impacts are Severe

The effect of this type of theft on park and recreation agencies has been devastating. Not only are replacement and repair costs inordinately high, but thefts disrupt business operations, require unplanned staff time, and deprive the public of the use of parks and facilities. Most significantly, because most park and recreation agencies are self-insured, virtually none of this type of theft is covered by insurance.

Risk Manager Wanda Wesley-Major of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission explains that self-insurance funds are created by park and recreation agencies to avoid the high cost of insurance and held as reserve funds to pay out approved claims internally and externally. Larger agencies may also hold commercial property damage insurance policies, but they usually have a $250,000 deductible, and don't cover these kinds of losses. When an internal property damage claim is filed due to loss from theft, the self-insurance fund may cover the claim, but the payment of the claim effectively comes directly from the agency's operating budget. Nor does the reckoning take long to occur--the bill comes due at the turn of the next fiscal year.

The losses to park and recreations agencies across the country are eye-opening. Milwaukee County has documented $800,000 in metal theft losses in the past five years. …