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Minnesota legislature contemplating bill that would require license to sell copper to help cut down on thefts

Minnesota lawmakers hope bill will solve copper theft issue
Minnesota lawmakers hope bill will solve copper theft issue 02:02

ST. PAUL, Minn. — St. Paul leaders say it's a constant problem: Thieves targeting green street lamps, prying open the access panel and stealing the copper wire inside.

"People are selling because a small number of businesses are looking the other way and not asking questions when they buy stolen copper," Rep. Athena Hollins, DFL-St. Paul, said. "And that's fine. If they won't do it, we will."

According to St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, the city spent more than $1 million on repairing and restoring gutted lamps and traffic signals in the last year. It's part of the reason lawmakers are pushing to make it illegal to sell copper without a state-issued license.

RELATED: Neighbors say lack of light, copper thefts likely led to death of St. Paul man

It's an effort supported by top city leaders.

"If taking the wire is something that becomes worthless to you, there really is no reason to take it," St. Paul Police Chief Axel Henry said.

Henry says a thief can sell the copper inside a street lamp for $50, but it can cost the city up to $2,000 in damages. The crime is happening so often, it's hard for law enforcement – and repair work — to keep up.

"In some cases we've seen, recently fixed or repaired lights are targeted and stripped the very next day," Carter said.

Carter said a total of 38 Minnesota mayors signed a written letter of support of the bill, with representation from the metro and beyond.

"Copper wire theft is not a St. Paul issue," he said. "Copper wire theft is not a metro issue. It's impacting communities all around our state. Communities of all different sizes."

Beyond cost, lawmakers say darkened streets pose a safety issue. Some say stolen wires contributed to the death of Steven Wirtz — a man who died walking his dog after being hit by a car on a street without working lights last year.

RELATED: Copper thieves strike south Minneapolis American Legion, causing thousands of dollars in damage

"That was the moment I realized copper theft is more than a mere inconvenience or infrastructure expense," Rep. Hollins said. "It's a public safety crisis."

In the bill, electricians are eligible for a state-issued license to sell copper. Residents and businesses can recycle the material for free.

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