Sign thefts a frustrating, costly problem for cities
by Laura Gaddy
Nov 29, 2013 | 3156 views |  0 comments | 102 102 recommendations | email to a friend | print
City workers in Piedmont create a new sign for Alabama Street. Sign theft is a costly problem for many cities and counties throughout the state. Photo by Bill Wilson
City workers in Piedmont create a new sign for Alabama Street. Sign theft is a costly problem for many cities and counties throughout the state. Photo by Bill Wilson
PIEDMONT — Alabama Street in Piedmont stretches a little more than half a mile and intersects with 11 cross streets, about half of which are no longer marked.

Where signs should be at those intersections, plain posts stand, their toppers removed. Just a few miles away, Auburn Street near the city's edge is as likely to have bare posts with no signs. The same is true just outside the city limits on Crimson Tide Drive.

“Auburn Street was just blank for years because you would get one set up and it’d disappear,” said Piedmont special projects manager Carl Hinton.

Cities across the state, and county, face the same problem with street signs.

“We have Alabama Street,”said Jacksonville Mayor Johnny Smith. “You may not find it because the sign is probably not there.”

Officials say the main reason street signs with popular names go missing is theft, but it is not the only one. Some are struck by vehicles in crashes and others are blown away in storms.

Signs with people’s first or last names are almost as likely to disappear as those that pay homage to the state’s most popular sports teams. For example, Smith said, Laura Lane in Jacksonville is a prime target for sign stealers.

Assistant Calhoun County engineer Michael Hosch said his department has to work through the year to keep signs up. County workers, meanwhile, must keep Crimson Tide Drive on its post.

“We very seldom ever recover them,” he said.

Hosch said some thieves take signs to sell them as scrap metal. The number of signs stolen seemed to decline, he said, after scrap yards became less likely to accept municipal property.

Overall, he said, the county budgets $55,000 each year to purchase materials to replace signs. But it costs more than that to repair them. Hosch said it takes between $150 and $200 in supplies, manpower and fuel to repair one sign.

About a year ago Piedmont purchased its own sign-making material to save money. Inside a city building is a stack of 9-inch by 24-inch reflective signs, multi-colored sheets of lettering and a letter printer.

Before it purchased the equipment, which cost approximately $2,500, the city paid a sign company between $35 and $40 each. Now the city purchases the pre-cut reflective backs for the street signs and makes them in house for about $15. In the last year the city has made 45 street signs.

Ed Hanson, a former Piedmont City Council member who was instrumental in purchasing the equipment, said it’s already benefiting the city.

“We get our money back in it,” Hanson said.

Of all the signs that have gone missing in Piedmont, only a few have resurfaced. Officials said they assume they end up in living rooms, bedrooms and on garage walls.

Piedmont police Chief Steven Tidwell said of the signs that have reappeared in Piedmont, most came from parents who return them without mentioning where they were recovered. People are sometimes unwilling to turn signs in because they’re afraid it will incriminate them or someone else, Tidwell said.

Prosecuting people for sign theft is difficult. That’s because it’s difficult to identify a victim, in this case a city, even with a sign in hand, Tidwell said. Several cities have streets with the same name, making it difficult to determine which city a particular sign is from.

Tidwell said, however, the city has prosecuted a few juveniles for sign theft.

Anyone convicted of destroying or stealing a sign valued at less that $500 may be found guilty of a Class B misdemeanor.

If less than 18 years old, the minor’s parents will be responsible for paying costs associated with the destruction and court costs. Minors may also be ordered to correct or clean up any destruction of public property, according to state law.

Keeping the signs in place is also a problem for residents who live on streets with popular names. Piedmont-area resident Melanie Brown said her parents named their street Crimson Tide Drive about 20 years ago.

Keeping the sign in place has been a problem ever since, she said.

“It may be gone a year before it can be replaced,” Brown said. “It’s a frustration.”

Staff writer Laura Gaddy: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LJohnson_Star.

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