Law enforcement alone cannot halt the growing number of metal thefts, but Baltimore County officials hope crime-fighting legislation might limit the profit in stolen copper, aluminum and other metals.
The Baltimore County Council will vote Monday on a proposal that would require scrap metal processors to be licensed, keep daily records of each transaction, including the seller's identity and vehicle information, and report all sales to the police at the end of each business day.
"Theft of metals has increased 500 percent and we are spending thousands in investigative costs," said Police Chief Jim Johnson. "Beyond the thefts, there is untold destruction left behind."
Recent crimes include the theft of more than 100 bronze urns from a local cemetery and bleachers from a county high school. More than 500 catalytic converters were sawed off vehicles in 2008, each netting thieves about $100 while costing car owners up to $1,500 in repairs.
"The loss of catalytic converters alone is reason enough to enact this bill," said Councilman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley. "So many people are hurting already, and the costs to businesses are increasing across the county. This bill is desperately needed."
Scott Shellenberger, the county state's attorney, brought to Tuesday's council work session a box of aluminum ingots, a minuscule part of the $1.5 million tractor-trailer load stolen from Sparrows Point this year.
"Dealers have a civic responsibility to ask questions and record the information," Shellenberger said. "This is about supply and demand. Don't give thieves any incentive to sell."
Mike Lawson and his son Will Lawson, owners of Mid Atlantic Metals in Arbutus, urged the council to reconsider the bill's holding requirement, which calls for dealers to hold certain metals for five days, saying that would take up needed space and cut into profits. Dealers buy by the tractor-trailer load at daily market prices. Holding items for too long in a fluctuating market could mean selling at a loss, they said.
"We are in the bulk business and handle thousands of tons of what has become America's No. 1 export," Mike Lawson said. "Don't make this bill so restrictive that we can't operate."
Council Chairman Joseph Bartenfelder said he expects the bill to pass with a few amendments, including a decrease from five to three days for the holding requirement.
"I anticipate this legislation will pass and maybe be used as a model for state legislation," Bartenfelder said.
Similar legislation has failed three times in the General Assembly, but legislators expect to take it up again next session. Baltimore County's bill, if passed, would take effect April 15.
Baltimore is considering a similar measure, said City Councilman Bill Henry.
"We will be voting soon after you guys," Henry told the County Council. "Then we will go to Annapolis and make it the same way."
Johnson said he is working closely with the scrap metal industry to make the process less onerous. He offered to establish a committee to deal with any unforeseen problems.
"As written, this bill may not be perfect, but it is progress," Moxley said. "Even if there are unintended consequences, we can go back and amend the bill."