Scrap dealers, police officers, realtors, lawyers, landlords, homeowners and lobbyists packed Thursday's Board of Aldermen Public Safety Committee meeting to debate the merits of a bill to tighten regulations of the scrap metal trade.
Board Bill #86, sponsored by 16th Ward Alderwoman Donna Baringer, would require scrap metal dealers to enter into an electronic database the personal information of the seller and prohibit scrap metal transactions between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m. The bill also specifically seeks to hinder air conditioner thieves: it would prohibit scrap metal dealers from paying cash to a person who sells them copper or air conditioner parts; checks for these deals must be held for three days or post-dated three days after the transaction; and scrap dealers could only accept air conditioner parts if they are accompanied by a signed statement from an EPA certified technician to ensure that the pieces were removed in accordance with environmental regulations.
The idea is that these extra hurdles to sell scrap metal will filter out some/many/all thieves who steal copper and other metal to get quick and easy cash. Those against the bill-- primarily scrap metal dealers-- argue that the regulations will hurt the scrap metal industry and lead to closed businesses and lost jobs. Those for the bill argue that it is the first step toward combating the region's prolific copper (and other metal) thieves.
At the committee meeting, around two dozen people stood up to speak out in support of or opposition to Board Bill #86.
Many of the people who spoke in support of the bill told their personal horror stories of copper robbery. A woman who works at a local non-profit said that thieves have stolen the organization's air conditioner-- for the copper coils-- six times, for a total of $40,000 in damages and lost property. It's been so prevalent, she added, that they can't even submit another claim to their insurance company anymore because their coverage might be cancelled.
A man who rehabs houses said the same thing about his insurance coverage. He told stories of walking into properties with flooded basements after thieves ripped copper spouts from the houses. Tens of thousands of dollars in damages, he said.
A couple of real estate agents talked of declining property values due to copper robbers. Ameren and AT&T each had representatives explain how the metal thieves were stealing from their properties, as well as stealing from their clients. A handful of city residents said that they were sick of their homes getting hit by the thieves, sick of worrying every night that they would wake up with a missing air conditioner or busted spout. Twentieth Ward Alderman Craig Schmid said that he got an email from parents who pulled their child out of a day care center because the its air conditioner had been ripped and it was too hot inside. Police Captain Dan Howard said that of the 150 arrests of metal thieves this year, the number of convictions "would be a lot less" because it is very difficult to prove where the metal comes from once it is in the possession of the suspect.
Everybody agreed that copper thievery is a big problem in St. Louis. But those against the bill argued that the regulations are misguided. That they punish the scrap dealers more than they prevent the stealing.
Seven scrap metal dealers each told the committee that they feared the bill would hurt their industry. Their perspective was clear: People selling scrap metal will be more likely to sell their goods in St. Louis County or Metro East or Madison Country or St. Charles County or Jefferson County, all places where they can get straight cash and little scrutiny. The thieves will go to all those places too, they said, so the scrap metal industry in the city will have been hit hard for little benefit. Attack the root problem, many of them asserted, don't punish the businesses.
The police officers and lawyers present declared that the regulations would hinder the crime. The belief is that people desperate for quick and easy cash-- often drug addicts-- turn to scrap metal stealing and selling because it is convenient. Make it harder to get that money, make it harder to remain anonymous, proponents say, and those people will be less likely to steal copper.
Beringer said in the meeting that she has been in contact with councilmen from surrounding counties. If St. Louis passes a scrap metal bill, those counties may consider following suit.
The only Alderman to oppose the bill was Sam Moore, of the 4th Ward. He proclaimed that he wouldn't support a scrap metal bill until the city addressed the brick stealing problem, the cause closest to his heart.
"We're talking about metal-- when are we gonna do something about the brick?" he boomed, arms raised, a few people in the crowed snickering. "This is absolutely absurd that we are talking about metal when we have buildings that look like this..."
He held up photographs of crumbling buildings from his ward-- walls falling over with gaping holes from all the pilfered brick. Then he walked back to his seat, a smile on his face.
"You're an alderman," responded the committee chairman, 27th Ward Alderman Greg Carter, with a slight grin, "you can write your own bill."
The committee will vote on the bill on Tuesday.