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Minn. legislators proposing licenses for sellers amid ‘public safety crisis’ of copper wire theft

The legislation, which followed the death of a man crossing a street turned pitch black by the theft of copper wiring in streetlights, would require anyone selling copper metal to have a state-issued license

Minnesota State Capitol

The Minnesota State Capitol is shown in this Jan. 10, 2020 photo in St. Paul, Minn. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

Jim Mone/AP

By Mara H. Gottfried
Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL, Minn — Copper wire theft that’s darkened streetlights have discouraged teenagers in St. Paul’s North End from playing basketball at their local courts, caused older couples to discontinue early-morning walks around Como Lake and led to local shops struggling to attract customers because people felt unwelcome on the dim sidewalks.

“Then, on Christmas Eve of 2023, the unthinkable happened,” said Rep. Athena Hollins , DFL-St. Paul. A driver fatally struck Steven Wirtz, a 64-year-old retired Marine, as he walked his dog across a North End street that was pitch black due to copper wire theft.

“That was the moment that I realized that copper wire theft is more than a mere inconvenience or perpetual infrastructure expense,” Hollins said Monday. “It’s a public safety crisis.”

Since January, Hollins said she’s paired with the city of St. Paul “to work on legislative solutions for this crisis, one that we believe will curb the selling of illegally-obtained copper without overburdening the scrap metal industry.” She and Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, are sponsoring bills.

The legislation would require anyone selling copper metal to have a state-issued license. Construction contractors, people who work in residential trades, and other workers would continue to be allowed to sell copper and wouldn’t need a separate license, Hollins said. The bills would still allow residents and businesses to recycle copper materials with scrap metal companies for free.

If a scrap business purchases copper wire from someone without a license, they could lose their business license

Beyond streetlightsThe problem continues to extend beyond streetlights to other sources — “they’re going after traffic signals, which is incredibly dangerous,” St. Paul Public Works Director Sean Kershaw said last month. “They’re going after phone systems, they’re going after utility vaults, they’re going after HVAC systems” and charging stations for electric vehicles.

Scrap metal industry suggests alternativeThe House Commerce Finance and Policy heard the bill Monday and recommended it be referred to the Committee on Ways and Means. The Senate bill is scheduled for a committee hearing Tuesday.

Jeremy Estenson, representing the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, said at Monday’s committee hearing that they share the same interest in curbing theft and promoting safety.

“I’m not necessarily here to oppose the bill,” Estenson told the committee, saying he wanted to “provide a suggestion … that might actually work better.” Some states are using a real-time communication system that allows law enforcement to directly tell scrap yards about stolen goods, so they can be on the lookout, Estenson said.

Estenson urged legislators to consider, when it comes to the bill, that a lot of scrap metal that’s stolen in Minnesota doesn’t end up in the state at scrap metal recyclers: “Because if I drive in a load of stolen stuff, my driver’s license is captured on camera, my face, I sign a bunch of paperwork.”

Rep. Isaac Schultz, R-Elmdale Township in Morrison County, said at Monday’s committee that he’s heard concerns from small business owners in his community. He said they’re “legal businesses operating and doing good work. … This is recycling work in our communities.”

Support from mayors throughout the state St. Paul Public Works spent more than $1 million to fix street lights and traffic signals damaged by copper wire theft. That’s 10 times the amount from 2019, when the cost to Public Works was just over $100,000.

Someone stealing wire from a streetlight can get about $50 from selling the wire, but it costs up to $2,000 to repair, according to St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter.

In Minneapolis last year, nine and a half miles of copper wire was stolen, said Minneapolis Public Works Director Bryan Dodds.

“Part of what makes Minneapolis such a special place is the lakes and parkways, and unfortunately these are some of the areas that have been hardest hit by wire theft,” he said. “… Often we would finish repair only to have the same stretch of wire stolen again within another few days.”

They’ve attempted to make poles more difficult to access, which St. Paul also has done, but thieves still break in.

A “statewide solution” is needed because other places also have had problems with copper wire theft, Hollins said. It would cost about $61,000 for the state to administer a licensing program, according to Carter.

“The thieves who have been gutting our public utilities will be locked out of the market where they earn most of their money,” Pappas said. “We’ve seen our law enforcement and neighborhoods stepping up to curb this crime, and it’s time for action at the Capitol as well.”

Carter and 37 other mayors signed onto a letter dated Sunday, urging the Senate and House commerce committees to support the bills. “We represent communities as far away as Virginia on the Iron Range, as large as Minneapolis and as small as Gem Lake,” Carter said.

“We’ve seen how successful state policy can be through the work on curbing catalytic converter theft through registration and accountability,” he said. “We can do the same thing with copper wire.”

Comprehensive solution St. Paul Police Chief Axel Henry said people often ask: “Can’t you make it harder to get the wire in the first place?” He said the answer is, “Yes and we look at those types of things.” People also ask, “Can’t you hold people more accountable?” Henry said, “Yes, and we’re doing all those things.”

The Ramsey County attorney’s office has charged 19 people in copper wire theft cases this year, compared to seven last year.

“A real comprehensive solution has to include a piece that says, ‘What if you get access to it?,” Henry said. “This bill will help us achieve that in the sense that … we make it monetarily worthless to you unless you have a legitimate reason to have it.”

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