County officials study frequent sign vandalism

Published 6:00 am Monday, December 10, 2007

Somewhere in Lincoln County tonight, chances are good that aroad sign is going down.

Lincoln County’s elected officials are becoming increasinglyfrustrated with the growing problem of street sign theft, a problemthey agree is ongoing and almost unstoppable.

“People just break them off,” said District Two Supervisor BobbyJ. Watts. “They’re fiberglass, not too hard to snap. People justrip them off the top of the posts and carry ’em off.”

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Watts said the problem is not just in his district, but acrossthe entire county. And it happens often, possibly even everynight.

“It happens constantly; it never quits,” he said. “They (signthieves) never leave us alone. I’ll tell you, somebody will get onetonight, without a doubt.”

Lincoln County officials said sign thieves swipe an average of20 street signs per month, but their swindling rampages areirregular.

“It goes in spurts,” Watts explained. “They’ll get thecommunity, you’ll put the signs back up and it may be a year beforethey hit you again.”

Then again, it may not take so long.

Lincoln County Litter Control Coordinator Ronnie Durr saidreplacing missing street signs is a common duty of his.

“It’s a constant drain on the county,” he said. “I’ve got tomake the new sign and go put it up, and all that costs money.”

Durr said the average cost of replacing a stolen sign is roughly$30. With an average of 20 signs lost each month, the county isspending approximately $600 every 30 days to replace them, but thatfigure might be higher.

Durr said the $30 estimate was calculated over a year ago, andthe rising costs of fuel has probably made sign replacement morecostly since.

Other than running up the county’s bill and fraying thesupervisors’ nerves, the biggest problem created by street signtheft is the confusion it can create for emergency services.

“If someone is in need of medical services or law enforcement,and the sign is missing, it creates a delay in the response,” Durrsaid. “People don’t realize that.”

King’s Daughters Medical Center paramedic Sandra Martinagreed.

“If the sign is missing, we have to locate the place on a mapand count roads until we get there,” she said. “We have to hope theroads are printed correctly on the map, too. Sometimes, theyaren’t.”

Missing signs may not be a great dilemma for experiencedBrookhavenites, but KDMC currently has five of 24 paramedics – morethan 20 percent – who are new to the area. Missing signs couldtranslate into lost lives in serious medical situations.

County officials are miffed about the constant disappearance ofthe signs, but they all agree on how difficult it is to put a stopto the problem.

“You can’t stop it,” said District One Supervisor the Rev. JerryL. Wilson. “We tried installing different bolts to hold the signson, but they’ll just saw ’em off. Sometimes they’ll saw the wholepole in half and just take it with ’em.”

Watts echoed his fellow supervisor’s frustration.

“Them suckers; there ain’t any way to catch ’em,” Watts said indisgust. “They steal signs at night, and you can’t sneak up on ’em.They’ll see your headlights coming or hear your engine running andtake off. We’ve got a lot of roads in the county for them to godown and I don’t know if we’ll ever catch ’em.”

Watts said he travels the roads at night often, trying to catcha sign thief in the act, but has never had any luck.

The Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department has enjoyed a littlemore success than Watts, but its sign thief apprehensions almostalways come after the fact.

“Deputies have caught them in the past with signs in theirvehicles during traffic stops,” said Lincoln County Sheriff SteveRushing. “It’s hard to catch them in the act. Whenever we getreports of sign theft, we beef up our patrols in the area and tryto catch them.”

Rushing said the legal penalties for street sign thefts dependon the number of signs snatched and the judge who presides over thecase. The fines can range from $500 to $1,000 plus the confiscationof the sign and the cost of replacing it, and the presiding judgecan charge the street sign liberators with anything from maliciousmischief to petty larceny.

Rushing and Durr shared the view that the primary culprits inmany cases where street signs go missing in action are youthfuloffenders.

“Whenever I’ve dealt with sign thieves, they’ve always beenjuveniles,” Rushing said. “They are sent to youth court. I can’trecall a case when we had an adult doing it.”

Durr anticipated more problems in the near future.

“As the holiday season gets in here, we’ll experience a littlebit more destruction because of all the people being out ofschool,” Durr said. “I hate to say it so harsh, but that’s just theway it goes.”

Officials speculated on the reasons why people feel the need toburgle street signs.

“I don’t know why people do it, other than just for a thrill,”Wilson said. “They’ll pass by a certain street and say, ‘Hey,that’s my uncle’s name’ or something and steal it for asouvenir.”

At one point, officials thought signs were being stolen so thatthe thieves could turn a profit. The county changed the materialthe signs are composed of.

“The signs used to be made of aluminum,” Durr said. “We thoughtthey were stealing the signs to sell off the scrap metal. We wentfrom a metal sign to a fiberglass sign. That didn’t work. They’restill getting them.”

Every now and then, Durr and his department can forgo a fractionof the cost of replacing stolen signs when they are returned.

“When a sheriff’s deputy stops a vehicle and finds a sign, he’llconfiscate it and take it to the sheriff’s office and then it’sreturned to me,” he said. “In some instances, we are able torecycle the sign, but it only happens occasionally. They brought mesix confiscated signs last week, and that’s the first load I’ve hadreturned in a long time.”

Durr hopes that sign thieves will be caught and prosecuted. Hehad a message to deliver to whomever is considering stealing a signin Lincoln County.

“It would be nice to catch a few of ’em physically stealing asign and draw some attention to ’em,” he said. “Those signs are upfor one sole purpose – for law enforcement and medical services.Just leave ’em alone! They’re not hurting anybody, they’re justminding their own business; just leave ’em alone!”