Metal thieves ravage Camden school buildings

Posted: August 18, 2012

Metal thieves have knocked out the heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) units in more than a third of Camden school buildings since fall, leading district officials to wonder how they will pay for replacements.

In the last year, at least 15 units in 11 locations have been destroyed by vandals who stripped them of copper and iron. District leaders are scrambling to come up with more than $750,000 for new apparatus and protective cages.

The unexpected expense "can take away from things that needed to be done during the school year," district business administrator Celeste Ricketts said. "You need to make smart decisions where you don't impact programs."

The district already has been billed $265,000 to replace seven units at three schools and it expects to spend in excess of $500,000 on replacements at eight other schools. Its 2012-13 operating budget is $320 million.

Remington & Vernick Engineers of Haddonfield is designing cages for the new units that will be bid out for manufacture, said Steve Nicolella, the district's buildings and grounds director.

In the last year, metal thefts have caused millions of dollars of damage in Camden. A generator was required to power a recent peace festival at a park where the main electrical pole had been vandalized and students in non-air-conditioned schools were dismissed early on days when the outside temperature exceeded 90 degrees, interim Superintendent Reuben Mills said. If part of the school is cool, he said, students are moved within in the building.

"It is [disruptive], but we have to do what's best for our young people," Mills said.

The monetary damage caused by metal thieves is far greater than what the bandits get for the copper they strip from HVAC units. Scrap metal dealers pay about $1.25 a pound for copper; smaller-size HVAC units contain about 15 pounds of the metal.

What yields a thief $25 can cost $10,000 to replace, Nicolella said.

Camden scrap dealers say many of the people they see seem increasingly desperate. They're usually tied to drugs, said Tom Fanelle of R. Fanelle's Sons on Ferry Avenue.

"We had these two kids come in, one was holding the other who had no legs. . . . He was trying to sell his prosthetic legs," which were made of titanium, he said. "They were all drugged up."

Fanelle was an outspoken critic of an attempt by City Council this year to amend Camden's scrap metal ordinance to address thievery. Proposed changes included a requirement that sellers would be paid by check and that purchased goods would be held for a number of days to allow for police investigations.

Scrap dealers said their business would be hurt because people would go to a municipality where they could get cash.

Before moving on its ordinance, the city is waiting to see whether the state passes proposed legislation related to scrap metal, city spokesman Robert Corrales said.

That bill, whose sponsors include Assemblymen Angel Fuentes and Gilbert "Whip" Wilson and Sen. Donald Norcross, all Camden Democrats, is similar to the city's proposal.

It "will be a burden on both government and the business owner," Fanelle predicted.

Though state legislation would be better than a local ordinance, because it would level the playing field, he would like to see a federal law so South Jerseyans don't just cross the bridge to Philadelphia.

Fanelle also has suggested setting up a county hotline that scrap dealers could call to report customers they suspect are selling ill-gotten items.

On Aug. 28, the district will run its first live telecast of a school board meeting since April, when the rooftop units at the district's Preston R.O. Toliver II Broadcast Center on Pine Street were vandalized. Four replacement units and protective cages were installed this month. Each cost between $8,000 and $10,000; the cages were about $5,000 each, Nicolella said.

Because each theft is treated as an individual claim by the insurance company, the district would have to pay a $50,000 deductible each time, Ricketts said. Only a few units cost more than the deductible.

The district would like to rig each cage with an alarm, Nicolella said.

HVAC units aren't the only targets. School fences, gates, and brass plaques also have been stolen or vandalized. And the metal thieves have become bolder. Live wires feeding 600 volts of electricity to vacant William F. Powell Elementary School on Linden Street were recently cut and stripped of copper.

No one has been arrested in any of the metal thefts, education officials said. But even if they were, Fanelle said, thieves usually are charged for stealing $20 worth of copper, not an air conditioner worth $5,000.

"There's no deterrent," he said.

Though the district has guards who patrol school property day and night, the force is not large enough to be a constant presence. District officials declined to give the exact number of security officers.

Nor can the guards do much to stop a thief in action.

"That can be a tad dangerous," said Gaylen Conley, director of district security. "The only people qualified to do that in the city are the Camden police."

The police try to be responsive to calls from the district, Conley said, but sometimes they wait until the next day to investigate.

Camden Police Chief Scott Thomson did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

"It's a tough, losing battle we are facing," Nicolella said.


Contact Claudia Vargas at 856-779-3917, cvargas@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @InqCVargas. Read her blog, "Camden Flow," at www.philly.com/camden_flow

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