July 28, 2008

Increased Theft of Water Meter, Manhole Covers Leaves Holes in Streets

By James Monteleone, The Daily Times, Farmington, N.M.

Jul. 27--FARMINGTON -- Metal lids covering water meters and manholes are being stolen faster than city officials can replace them to be sold for scrap metal, leaving some city streets patched with cones and boards to prevent injury.

In the past three weeks, more than 100 of the metal covers have been stolen throughout the Farmington water service area, according to the Farmington Public Works Department. Half of those thefts occurred within the last week alone.

The metal covers, which range between 12 and 24 inches in diameter and weigh more than 50 pounds, are capable of fetching up to $40 as scrap.

"Usually we lose one or two a month, maybe. Yesterday, we lost eight more," Farmington Public Works Director Jeff Smaka said last week. "I'm bewildered. ... We're getting hit very fast."

Scrap yards in San Juan County say they are not accepting the stolen lids and are reporting any suspicious sellers to police, forcing thieves to haul the load to Albuquerque, a significant expense considering high gas prices.

"The thieves won't come to us because we'll turn them in," said Carl Huish, of CBH Trucking and Salvage in Farmington.

Some scrap yards reported they have not encountered the stolen metal utility lids.

Farmington Police said local scrap companies have been cooperative with the investigation, many offering officers an opportunity to search the property for the stolen materials, Detective Lt. Steve Burch said.

The lack of local resale options suggests the surge in stolen lids differs from the theft of copper wire and other valuable scrap metals, which often are taken and resold locally to quickly get a small amount of money.

The water meter lid that a scrap yard pays a few dollars for will cost the city as much as $275 to replace, an unexpected $27,500 pinned onto this month's budget.

"I am concerned about the expense of this," Farmington City Manager Rob Mayes said. "We're doing all we can to catch the people doing it and to put a stop to this loss."

As a first step, the city is working to reduce the value of the utility covers. Stolen lids are being replaced with a new cast iron lids, which weigh more than 100 pounds and carry little scrap value.

The recent spike in manhole cover thefts mirrors a new trend in communities across the country, where metal lids composed of a variety of different materials are being stolen and sold for small change.

"Everybody needs the supply. Trying to get them in here quick enough from the vendors is the issue," Smaka said. "It's probably taking us a week to two weeks to get materials in here to replace and they seem to be stealing them faster than we can get them in here."

While crews wait for new covers, many of the city's 5,000 manholes and 15,000 water meters pose hazards on Farmington sidewalks, an issue the city is working to address.

"On Apache Street last week, we had plywood and pallets and traffic cones over openings so people would not fall in them," Smaka said. "As fast as we can, we're trying to fix them, but as a minimum we're trying to cover them to try and protect the public from falling into an opening."

One injury caused by an open manhole was reported: A Farmington man suffered minor injuries July 17 after crashing his bicycle into an uncovered hole on the 2500 block of E. 20th Street, police said.

"Given the number of thefts that we've had, we certainly encourage the public to be aware of any open manholes," Mayes said. "We endeavor to get these replaced as quickly as possible."

Tracking thieves

Farmington Police investigating the spike in the stolen covers are turning to residents, hoping to get a report of suspicious activity involving the water meter or manhole covers, Detective Burch said.

"You can't stake out manhole covers and water meter covers," he said. "We'll get a call from a citizen, we'll get a license plate number, because this isn't something you go tote around."


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