May – June 2014 Commentary

scrap metal theft and arrest illustration
scrap metal theft and arrest illustration
Illustration by James Yang

Scrap Metal – Cheaper by the Pound

While Lansing celebrated the passage of beefed-up scrap metal laws in mid-March, the legislation isn’t likely to stem the theft of copper wires, catalytic converters, or air conditioners. The amended law, among other things, requires scrap metal dealers to delay payment to sellers by three days, and orders that such transactions be consummated by check ($25 or more).

May June 2014 commentary statistics

Like the earlier law (the Nonferrous Metal Regulatory Act, established in 2008), the new legislation requires that anyone selling scrap metal produce a photo ID, provide a thumbprint, and sign a statement declaring that they are the owner of the material to be sold. Other than adding the three-day payment delay, not much has changed from the previous legislation.

If Lansing and urban communities are to stem the flow of illegal scrap metal, more funding should be directed to cracking down on scrap metal yards that buy stolen materials. In fact, scrap metal thieves and the operators they sell to are well-known among police agencies, but the police lack the resources to crack down on the problem as more emphasis is placed on busting drug dealers, confiscating stolen guns, and shutting down blind pigs.

Still, because most scrap metal thieves work late at night, police agencies will have their hands full trying to deter such crimes along with watching their normal patrols. A dedicated task force certainly would help in the face of what can be relentless and creative criminals.

Consider the case of the former Cass Technical High School, which sat empty for months after a new facility was built and opened nearby. While a guard protected the exterior of the old school, thieves had full access to the building via a large utility tunnel nearby. When the demolition process was finally approved, the interior structure had been stripped of nearly everything.

Such theft isn’t confined to vacant buildings. Scrap metal dealers themselves are targets for criminals — along with electric and gas utilities, public lighting departments, manufacturers, and suppliers.

We have their name, address, and phone number, and I have yet to see a police officer coming in here looking for a catalytic converter.
— Randy Vandentoorn, owner, Dusty’s Scrap West Michigan Iron & Metal, Wyoming, Mich.

Lansing and local government agencies should encourage the use of cheaper building materials such as aluminum conductor steel reinforced cable, which sells for less than 10 cents a pound. Copper wire, by comparison, sells for around $2.50 a pound.

At the end of the day, the best defense to metal theft is an aggressive offense that relies on stepped-up enforcement and creative problem-solving.

Labor – Right-to-Work

The United States was founded on the principles of freedom and self-determination. Now, nearly 240 years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, freedom is still an illusion in some circles. Take the Michigan Education Association, which is doing everything it can to keep its members from leaving the union.

In late 2012, when right-to-work legislation was signed into law, the union quickly moved to limit a teacher’s ability to leave the MEA to a narrow window in August. The limited opt-out period was never advertised, and many teachers only became aware of the opportunity after the fact. As a result, a number of teachers have filed lawsuits seeking to leave the MEA and other unions.

Unions argue their members are better off due to collective bargaining practices, but the law of supply and demand has the same effect. If Michigan schools failed to pay teachers a competitive wage and benefits, they would quickly lose top-notch instructors to other regions and/or other states.

The unions want it both ways: the ability to automatically deduct union dues of around $1,000 annually from a teacher’s paycheck, and automatic enrollment into the union upon hiring. Under right-to-work, the unions must ask workers for personal credit card information or bank data to continue collecting dues. What’s been clear in the year since right-to-work became law is the MEA is only interested in perpetuating its existence, rather than working to improve graduation rates and educational standards

Auto Insurance – MCCA Oversight

One thing that Michigan has on every other state is no-fault auto insurance that offers the best health coverage in the country for accident victims. Now some legislators are working to limit the amount of health care an accident victim can receive following a catastrophic injury. Lansing should leave such coverage in place.

For years, Michigan drivers have been paying an additional vehicle assessment ($186 in 2013) per year to cover victims of catastrophic injuries. By law, the Michigan Catastrophic Claims Association reimburses no-fault auto insurers when medical care exceeds $530,000 in a catastrophic accident. Now the association says it doesn’t have the money to provide for future payments.

That may be the case, but few know for sure because the MCCA — a private, nonprofit organization — isn’t required to open its books to the general public. Rather, a board of five representatives from insurance companies runs the MCCA, and they do not have to share financial statements for public scrutiny.

If anything, legislation should be introduced to require the MCCA to release financial details about the fund and how the money is spent. If, indeed, the money for accident victims isn’t enough, the MCCA should have no problem sharing the information. The MCCA should also be prevented from hiring its own team of doctors to challenge claims and deny benefits it deems to be exorbitant. Otherwise, the general public has no way of ascertaining whether the MCCA is properly managing the fund.