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Fight copper theft, relax work rules

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POSTED December 31, 2013 1:56 a.m.

Look around Manteca, or any town for that matter. You will see street lights not working because someone has pulled the copper wire.

Anything that’s brass or remotely a precious metal disappears. History plaques? They are recycled through some unscrupulous scrap dealer for perhaps enough money to buy a meal or two in the best case and a good drunk or high in the worst. AK Development gave up long ago trying to replace brass letters stolen from the Spreckels Park entrance signs.

Construction sites and vacant buildings get picked over for anything recyclable. What cost $100 new often fetches a dollar or less at a recycling center. It has gotten so bad that in some cities fire hydrants are being ripped off. Recycled they are worth pennies on the dollar.

Schools and city parks lose aluminum bleacher benches in the night,

It goes without saying that current regulation of recyclers isn’t aggressive or tough enough. While most recyclers follow the tougher rules for payment adopted several years ago by the state, there are enough that don’t. They are fed by greed fueled by a worldwide market that is paying top dollar for recycled metals.

The solution unfortunately is not as simple as catching the metal thieves and throwing them in jail. It is such a low-level crime on the scale of atrocities against society that any jail time is less than the paperwork law enforcement has to fill out after making an arrest.

Putting in place draconian rules for requiring verification of where metals were taken from and delaying payment for up to a month to allow a background check on the person bringing the stuff in for recycling won’t do much good. The main reason is such a move would discourage law-abiding citizens from scrap metal recycling and would skyrocket the cost of doing business. Recycling already has a razor thin margin. It relies on volume to make it cost effective.

And then there is the real issue. Those who do most of the stealing of recyclable items are homeless or extremely poor. They essentially don’t have jobs. While it is true the ranks of such thieves include a fair share of meth heads and such most are just trying to survive.

They have to eat. And one of their few options besides shifting through Toters and trash bins for recyclables they can convert into cash is ripping off copper wire.

At the same time there is a lot of low-skill work that goes undone in cities such as Manteca. That work runs the gamut from litter cleanup and pulling weeds to small labor projects.

So why not use “day laborers” in the form of the homeless to do such tasks? It would be significantly easier and a steadier income than scouting all over creation for recyclable items on foot or on bicycle and then hauling them to a recycler.

Some like to contend it won’t happen because labor unions and such would raise a stink. The real reason has everything to do with liability and minimum wage laws, income tax withholding and such.

The tasks that are going undone are typically low priority, quality-of-life type of things. The cost of hiring someone to do them can’t be justified.

But what if those who are homeless or that meet specific criteria that shouldn’t require a code writer to decipher would be allowed to do such work?

And instead of paying them by the hour, pay them on a piecemeal basis each day without anything withheld for taxes.

They could be paid $2 for filling a 30-gallon bag with trash or $5 to stuff the same size of container with weeds.

Cities such as Manteca would supply any needed tools such as bags, gloves, and hoes.  The supervisor could be a park worker in most cases or perhaps volunteers though Seniors Helping Area Residents and Police. Work days could be scheduled two or three times a week with advance notice posted in places where the chronic homeless hang out. They also would be paid that day in cash.

Piggybacking it could be an effort to connect the homeless with various services to help them work toward getting them off the streets. At the same time much tougher rules would be put in place to discourage homeless from stealing recyclable items by making the waiting period and verification process of where items came from a tad too much effort as opposed to working in a day labor project. While it wouldn’t stop the organized thieves that rip off large amounts of recyclable times, it could reduce the ranks of those that inflict the most accumulative damage by simply trying to get money to eat.

The state should allow cities to use their cut of California Redemption fees charged on recyclable containers to pay for such day labor. In Manteca’s case that comes to over $15,000 a year. Right now cities have to dream up ways to spend the money to encourage people to recycle such as paying for public information spots at local movies to making trinkets out of recycled material that usually get thrown away in no time at all.

It is obvious what we are doing right now isn’t working.

And all the labor safeguards and rules in place make it hard for the truly down and out to earn a few bucks here and there to survive.

Either we bend the rules and try something new or we stop complaining about the damage homeless rogue recyclers inflict in their bid to stay alive.



This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com or (209) 249-3519.

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