Manteca going after metal thievery

MANTECA -- In a widening effort to crack down on thieves who steal metal and then sell it to junk dealers, city officials are drafting new rules for recycling yards.

A proposed ordinance is expected to reach the council within the next month.

If approved, it would activate safeguards, such as requiring payment by check, passed by San Joaquin County Supervisors last month. The county ordinance applies only to unincorporated areas of the county where no recycling yards operate; the city ordinance would apply within Manteca city limits, which has one recycling center.

"Citywide, what really got me going is that (thieves) are pulling copper wire out of the railroad signal arms," said Councilman John Harris, who brought the issue to the council. "And construction sites have been hit very hard with thousands upon thousands of dollars in losses. And when you start messing around with public safety, that really is the burr under my saddle."

Harris asked Police Chief Charlie Halford to look into imposing quadruple penalties for dismantled public safety equipment such as railroad apparatus.

The county's agricultural commissioner estimated that metal theft losses within San Joaquin County have been in the hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past couple of years. There are stories of people stealing wire from utility companies, vases from graveyards and copper from water pumps.

Farmers find pumps vandalized

"We need to put some laws in place," Councilman Steve DeBrum said. "The county is stepping up to the plate. In talking to farmers, what they're telling me is that they will go out to one of their pumps at one of their wells and the darned thing is stripped of all of its copper. And they have to spend $7,000 or $8,000 to fix the thing."

The trend began two or three years ago, and in response, the Manteca Recycling Center on Moffat Boulevard began requiring sellers to show ID, said Daniel Maraspini, the manager.

The county ordinance goes further, also requiring recyclers to detail the items they receive, keep them for a holding period while police check items against those reported stolen, and only then pay customers -- and by check.

"Paying by check is fine -- it would probably be easier for us," Maraspini said, adding that he endorsed much of the proposal. "The only thing that might be far-fetched is holding onto the metal, because it puts us at risk (for theft), and we don't have the room to store it for 14 days."

Manteca police spokesman Rex Osborn said specifics have yet to be drawn for Manteca's draft ordinance and noted that whatever it says, the final version will be determined during a public review process before the City Council.

"Our local recyclers have been cooperative," he said. "They realize the need for it. By making this an ordinance, it really takes some of the pressure off of them to do the right thing. If they're challenged by their customers, they can say, 'Look, the city's making us do this.' "

Bee staff writer Inga Miller can be reached at imiller@modbee.com or 599-8760.