High aluminum prices blamed for sign thefts
In two days last week, 19 road signs disappeared from remote areas of southern Leavenworth County.
Bill Green, the county's director of public works, said he has no clue who took the signs. But he does have an idea why.
"It seems like every time scrap aluminum prices get up so high, we have somebody coming in and taking the signs," Green said Monday. "It's apparent that they're taking them just for the aluminum and selling it."
Prices for scrap aluminum vary. But a Lawrence recycling center reported Monday that the type of metal the signs are made of would bring 32 cents a pound, up about five cents a pound from January.
While the thefts cost the county about $100 per sign to replace, safety is a more urgent concern.
One of the signs taken was a stop sign at the intersection of 182nd Street and Metro Avenue.
The county replaces signs within 48 hours of when they're reported missing. But, Green said, there's no safe time to have a stop sign missing.
"We don't have every intersection with a stop sign on it, but the ones where we do have them, we feel like it's important," Green said.
Leavenworth County Attorney Frank Kohl noted the theft of a sign would be a misdemeanor. However, if the missing sign, for instance a stop sign, resulted in a traffic fatality, the person who stole the sign could be charged with negligent homicide or reckless homicide.
"That's because of the fact the person took the sign down and created a hazard that caused a fatality," Kohl said.
And, Kohl said, if convicted, the prison sentence could run from five years to 15 years, depending on the person's criminal history.
On Thursday morning, motorists passing through Reno on U.S. Highway 24-40 south of Tonganoxie, reported one of the town's signs had been altered to read, "SUE Unincorporated."
That afternoon, a motorist said, the "SUE" sign was hanging upside down, appearing to be attached to the Reno sign by duct tape.
In the recent thefts, almost all of the signs were taken from remote locations in Stranger Township, Green said. Another sign was taken from northern Sherman Township.
"They've been unbolting them," Green said, noting he was looking into using fasteners that would make it more difficult to remove the signs.
Stealing signs to make money isn't that lucrative, Green said.
"Even at 50 cents a pound they're not getting that much," Green said, noting their heaviest signs might weigh as much as 10 pounds.
And, it costs everyone in the long run.
"It costs us about $100 each to replace signs," Green said.
Green said the difference between youths playing pranks and professionals stealing signs is simple.
"The street signs usually wind up in somebody's dorm room at some university," Green said.
However, he noted, most of the signs taken were object markers -- the slender signs before bridges that have black and yellow diagonal stripes on them.
"That's what they're taking," Green said. "Whenever we have a rash of these and the price of scrap aluminum is up, we know it's not just some kids, it's somebody, that to me, seems to be selling the aluminum -- especially if you lose 18 or 19 of them."
Kohl said it's unfortunate that some aluminum recycling centers don't have qualms about accepting signs that likely were stolen.
"They don't care where it comes from," Kohl said. "It's pretty obvious when you've got a traffic sign, in 99 percent of the cases people didn't come by those legally."
The last rash of sign thefts occurred about three months ago.
"So far this year, over 100 signs have been stolen," Green said.