Saturday, March 29, 2008

Stealing Copper

Last night I was driving through the city with a newcomer to the Youngstown area. She asked me how long the homes in the area had been in such a state of destruction and demise. I think she was expecting the answer to be ten years or longer. It may often seem that the landscape of our neighborhoods has remained the same for a very long time, however for the most part; the damage has been relatively recent, most in the last five years.

A recent article at My Hometown Ohio. discusses the value of older buildings, their ability to convey a sense of place and a connection to the past, their link to economic development, and also their quality of construction. The article also points that that there is a downside to this value - the market prices of certain commodities are going through the roof. As the value of commodities such as copper and bronze have increased there has been a corresponding rise in theft and stripping of abandoned houses.

The problem has become so wide spread nationally that the US News and World Report wrote an article about it. The article doesn't reveal much that those of us from Youngstown don't know. In Youngstown, street after street of houses has been systematically stripped of not only copper and metal but of fireplace mantels, doors, windows, you name it, and as the U.S. News & World Report points out, the opportunities seem to be everywhere.

It seems that several home robberies across the country have even resulted in death. In Iowa someone stealing copper pipes from a farmhouse accidentally cut the propane line, filling the house with gas. When the owner tried to plug in a fan, the building exploded and killed him. The problem must be pretty widespread. I recently heard a public service announcement that warns against stealing copper wires because it is dangerous and can kill you.

The cost of the thefts to businesses, homeowners, and neighborhoods is astronomical. Last year 26 state legislatures and several cities toughened penalties for metal theft or increased reporting requirements for scrap dealers to record identification information or a thumbprint of sellers so that stolen goods can be traced.

I would like to say that Youngstown was one of the cities that toughened penalties but I couldn't find evidence of this. My perusal of the Youngstown Municipal Ordinances was very frustrating in this regards. However, as I was reading, several ideas about making the code more effective came to mind. For example, in addition to the steps mentioned above, we could institute a three or four day waiting period on the issuance of checks to scrappers. That would provide lead time to check out the origin of the scrap. It would also either provide a good address for the scrapper because they are going to want to receive the check, or it would provide another potentially useful contact with the scrapper should the origin of the materials be suspect. But alas, all of my good ideas and suggestions will remain just that - ideas. Why? Because the State of Ohio has put a cabash on the passage of any new laws regarding such thefts.

In March the Ohio Senate approved a plan that on its surface appeared to be an excellent piece of legislation. The bill would require scrap metal sellers to provide photo identification and says that dealers must keep an inventory of what is purchased so it can be provided to the police. Senate Bill 171 also requires proof of ownership if a person is selling items such as grave markers, utility wires, beer kegs or guardrails. It also prohibits people who do not run an auto-related business from selling more than one catalytic converter per day.

All was well for a short while and Columbus officials and the Ohio Municipal League had no problem with the bill. That was until the majority approved an amendment to the bill. An amendment that says, "city scrap-metal laws cannot go further than the Senate Bill Provisions." This amendment will in effect wipe out a stricter law previously enacted in Columbus that requires the city's 19 scrap metal dealers to be licensed, forces people to give thumbprint ID and requires electronic communication between dealers and police. The new Ohio law essentially takes away tools from police officers who are trying to deal with scrap metal theft.

This amendment is just downright ludicrous not to mention stupid. I can't think of a nicer way to say it. Ohio is essentially saying that they are preempting, or displacing, local ordinances enacted by municipalities. Preemption generally refers to the effect that federal law will have on a conflicting or inconsistent state law. The Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution states that the laws of the U.S. will be the supreme law of the land, and that when there is a conflict between state and federal laws the Federal law trumps. The same principal applies between states and municipalities.

There are two situations where preemption claims arise. Express preemption is where it is stated within the statute that the law is preempting. This is what the Ohio amendment does here.

There is also something called implied preemption. Implied preemption often comes into play when looking at laws in terms of whether or not the law is going to be the minimum requirement or the maximum. It is generally acknowledged that it is appropriate to have two laws, one federal - one state, or as we have here, a state law and local ordinances. It is not uncommon for the federal government to make a law and then for a state to make a law that is stricter. When that happens, more often than not the state law will not be preempted because the federal law is the minimum standard and it is fine for the state to set higher standards. The Ohio law regarding theft of metal is stating that it is the maximum standard not the minimum standard. For some reason the Ohio legislature has concluded that its law will occupy the field.

So why do you suppose the Ohio Senate would chose to pass this amendment? Well, according to the Columbus Dispatch, Senator Ron Amstutz, R-Wooster, stated the amendment is good because, "Too much local control will move Ohio toward a medieval kingdom, urban centers with castles and walls." He goes on to say, "That, my friends, does not promote the kind of global interaction we have in our marketplaces.”

Let me reiterate, this is stupid! I believe that I have a very comprehensive understanding of globalization, trade, and the impact it has on the mid-west. For example, I am in favor of regionalism as a way for the Mid-west to compete in the global economy. However, I am not in favor of making it easy to sell the copper plumbing from our houses to India and China. I realize that the salvage price of copper has gone from 83 cents a pound to $2.60 because India and China have a tremendous demand. But I'm sorry I think my neighborhood has an even greater demand. We need to keep our plumbing and wiring and preserve our history.

The creation of a law that doesn't take into account the differences between communities in the state and address their unique problems with pirating is certainly not going to help us compete in the global economy. For example perhaps there are cities that have a problem with catalytic converters, but in Youngstown in addition to metals we have a problem with theft of architectural elements. Nor do I think that the creation of strict local ordinances will lead to urban centers with castles and walls, or mini-fiefdoms. I would like to invite Mr. Amstrutz from Wooster, to come and visit Youngstown. I'd like to give him a tour; then again I probably couldn't get him to come here unless I could assure him he'd have a few knights around to protect him.

The bill is making its way through the state house and on to the governor's desk. I suggest that you write letters to the governor and to our State Representative expressing your opposition to the bill as it currently reads.

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