Members of the Winston-Salem City Council want to hear from citizens about whether the city should lobby the General Assembly to stiffen penalties on secondary metal recyclers that purchase central air conditioner evaporator coils, catalytic converters and other copper items typically stolen by thieves and sold for illicit profit.
City Attorney Angela Carmon brought draft legislation to the Community Development/Housing/General Government Committee of the council that would reclassify violations of the statute controlling the trade in recycled metals from a misdemeanor to a felony. Carmon said under the proposed changes, violators could face up to 10 months of jail time.
The legislation would also double the amount of time metal recyclers were required to maintain records of transactions and hold metals before reselling them.
East Ward Councilman Derwin Montgomery said he does not support the change, but he found himself outnumbered by North Ward Councilwoman Denise D. Adams, Southeast Ward Councilman James Taylor Jr. and South Ward Councilwoman Molly Leight.
“I’m glad that we’re putting some teeth in this," Adams said. "I don’t know how many times I’ve talked to the city manager about the calls we get from property owners or people that are actually living in their houses and they leave and come back. And people have gone into their homes or in the back, and they just clean ’em out. And I always felt like, just like how we began to regulate pawnshops decades ago, that because of the economy we definitely need to regulate or have some type of ordinance that will hopefully keep people from stealing.
“Right now, the real estate developers are pretty upset because no matter how many times they board up their houses, put chain links up, iron fences, it doesn’t matter, they’re getting in, they’re getting the copper,” she continued. “You have churches now having to barricade their heating and air systems. You have security companies now that protect your air and heating from this type of situation.”
“We have to do what we can to protect our housing markets,” he said. “Most importantly, our churches and our everyday citizens will come home and their copper is gone…. We have to protect our citizens at all costs. I have worked in the criminal justice system a number of years. I have never been a fan of giving out jail time. I don’t think that actually fixes the problem. But it has to serve as a deterrent.”
Leight noted that the city recently made a grant to the YWCA to renovate the Hawley House, a residential substance abuse recovery facility for women.
“That project was finished when they came back to find that all the pipes had been stolen,” Leight said.
Montgomery said he opposes the measure because of the challenge of reintegrating ex-felons into society.
“My concern about changing this from a misdemeanor to a felony is the cyclical effect that this has in our community,” he said. “If just having the pure time on certain crimes was enough to deter people, we wouldn’t have as much crime as we have…. We need to take a big-picture look because we’re going to pay for it one way or another.”
The committee agreed to advertise a public hearing when it meets again next month so that citizens can give their input.
“Let’s not just invite the real estate folks,” Montgomery said. “That’s only one side. We need a diverse group. We need to invite the reentry folks, too. I may bring some people myself.”
The committee also agreed to pull a legislative item for further consideration that would delay processing disability retirement for municipal employees until workers compensation claims are settled to avoid double-paying employees hurt on the job. Southwest Ward Councilman Dan Besse, who chairs the committee, said he wants to hear from employees and employee associations before advancing the resolution to the full council.
The committee approved a resolution supporting legislation that would allow the Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation, or PART, to increase the tax on vehicle rentals from 5 to 8 percent to help close a budget gap. PART provides bus and other transportation services between the Triad's three major cities and between rural areas of the region.
Carmon said PART officials have informed the city that the 3-percent tax increase would help close a funding gap of $1.1 million to $1.2 million. If the General Assembly were to grant authority for the cap increase, PART’s board and county commissions across the Piedmont Triad, including Forsyth and Guilford, would need to approve the rate increase for it to go into effect.
“I did ask them in terms of the potential impact on the industry and whether or not that might discourage people from renting cars, and they didn’t think that was going to be a problem,” Carmon said.
The resolution cites recent difficulties in the car rental industry that raise some doubt about that assurance: “Due to a downturn in business and leisure travel, less car rentals are occurring and therefore less car rental taxes are being paid. The car rental tax revenue which is a significant component of the authority’s revenues has declined significantly.”