Sign theft dangerous, costly

By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal

OXFORD – To its perpetrators, road sign damage or theft is for prank or profit.
To county road departments and taxpayers, it imposes a price.
To motorists and law enforcement officials, it poses a peril.
“Stop signs are the ones they steal the most,” Lee County Road Manager Tim Allred said. “Those signs, if they remove one, and someone gets hurt or killed, they’re going to be liable.”
He estimates that Lee County spends $15,000 annually to replace damaged or stolen signs.
“We could have three or four or nine or 10 on one night,” Allred said, noting that high school graduation season is the worst time for thefts. “Whatever day they graduate on, we can be sure there’ll be some missing the next morning.”
Joe Bynum, assistant road manager in Lafayette County, said vandalism and theft cost his department an estimated $5,000 per year. While most loss is to spray painting and battering, there are still plenty of sign thefts for profit.
“The scrap metal places are aware of what’s going on,” he said. “On the back of that sign is written who owns it and when it was put up, and we haven’t heard from any of them.”
One other hint is that signs are often found in Oxford-area dwellings after students move out.
At least one Northeast Mississippi county has started a counteroffensive to try to cut its sign losses.
“We have a tremendous problem with it,” said Larry Hall, road manager for Marshall County, who estimates losses thus far this year at $15,000. “A lot of is vandalism, and some is stolen for scrap.”
One type of thief, he said, pummels signs until they break off their posts. Another uses four-wheel-drive vehicles to push the signs down. Yet another pulls up the poles, presumably for sale, Hall said.
After signs had disappeared repeatedly from one location, Marshall County Sheriff’s officers set up surveillance and caught two suspects beating the signs loose.
“They confessed to taking some others,” Hall said.
Bynum said similar surveillance has helped nab some illegal trash dumpers in Lafayette County, but road sign thieves and vandals haven’t repeated their hits on any particular sites.
“Once we figure out where a hot spot is that we keep losing signs, we may set up surveillance,” he said.
Lafayette County Sheriff Buddy East said he’s amazed that stolen road signs don’t create more hazards than they do.
“I think the main reason we don’t have more wrecks is most of the locals are familiar with the roads,” he said. “If you happen to be a stranger and come through there, it could be a disaster.”
errol.castens@journalinc.com