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Pasco officials move toward scrap metal database to thwart thieves

NEW PORT RICHEY — You'd be amazed at some of the reports sheriff's deputies get about stolen metal. Light poles. Manhole covers. Buckets filled with caps from fire hydrants.

Occasionally the thieves can't even muster respect for the past, and a historical marker turns up missing.

"Imagine if you went to the Dade City courthouse for a meeting and the plaque for Commissioner (Sylvia) Young wasn't there," said Jeremiah Hawkes, who oversees several administrative divisions for the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.

County commissioners on Tuesday gave initial approval to an ordinance they hope will curb similar cases of metal theft. The measure would treat scrap metal dealers in Pasco more like pawnshops by requiring them to maintain a real-time database of purchases.

That way, if deputies get a complaint that someone stole three bales of high-tension power line, they can quickly check for a recent sale matching that description.

The database is the same as what is used by pawnshops to help deputies find stolen merchandise. It would include a precise description of the item and detailed information about the seller, including name, contact information and a physical description.

Currently, state law requires scrap metal dealers to hold items for 15 days, but only if law enforcement officials make a request. Dealers don't have to notify deputies about recent sales.

"It is an intrusion, but I think it's a minor intrusion," Hawkes said. "It will help us prevent a lot more theft. Hopefully it will take the people who are dishonest and send them to somebody else's county."

The ordinance is similar to those passed in several other counties, including Leon, Hillsborough and Seminole. Without the new requirements, said Commissioner Pat Mulieri, the thefts are "going to balloon, not get smaller." Commissioners will consider the ordinance again at a second public hearing Feb. 7 in Dade City.

Metal theft is a growing problem. For example, Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative had $7,000 worth of metal stolen in 2007. Last year, that figure was $266,000.

And that's just the cost of the materials. That doesn't include the time spent to reinstall the equipment, or the cost to clean up environmental damage when a transformer is damaged.

The company has also hired a private investigative agency and paid for electronic monitoring devices to be placed in bales of wire.

"People will continue to steal if there are no penalties behind their actions," said company spokesman David Lambert.

Lambert also said if copper grounding wire is removed from a pole, a lightning strike could send a surge of electricity through the grid into a home.

He said company officials are lobbying for similar measures in counties that make up the rest of the utility's service area, including Hernando, Citrus and portions of Sumter and Polk.

Commissioners also agreed to add requirements for second-hand metal dealers, such as cash-for-gold shops. Currently, those dealers must only hold items for 15 days and don't have to keep a picture or description. The new rules would require a description and also extend the holding period to 30 days.

Lee Logan can be reached at or (727) 869-6236.

In other news Tuesday, commissioners:

• Approved Annette Doying as the county's emergency management director. Doying previously served in a similar role in Hernando County and was also Pasco's coordinator for Homeland Security. She has been the department's acting director since former director Jim Martin resigned in July.

• Voted to oppose legislation giving the governor power to appoint members of the Pasco-Hernando Workforce Board, as well as the agency's executive director. Currently those positions are controlled by commissioners of the two counties. More than 25 other counties have passed similar resolutions. Commissioners acknowledged prior problems at the agency, but said they were concerned about losing local control. Commissioner Henry Wilson also worried that the governor's office might not fill openings quickly enough.