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No Holds Barred

Scrap-metal thefts are down, but dealers continue to protest city tag-and-hold requirement.

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Piles of steel gutters, boxes of copper wire, and bales of pressed aluminum occupy every nook and cranny inside the dusty warehouse and grounds of H. Iskiwitz & Company, a scrap-metal recycler in North Memphis.

Workers have just enough room to drive forklifts around the site, but owner Allen Iskiwitz says a city ordinance that requires him to store newly acquired metals for 10 days would leave no space for employees to move.

"With the tag-and-hold provision, everything has to be kept separately, so every metal from every person who brought it in would have to be in separate piles," Iskiwitz said. "There's no room to walk around."

The city ordinance, which went into effect early last year, requires a 10-day hold on new materials as a way to give police time to track down stolen scrap metal.

The ordinance mandates that only licensed heating and air companies can sell air-conditioner coils. It also requires buyers to wait a period of several days before paying for copper purchases in order to prevent sales of stolen material for quick cash. A new state law mirrors much of the city ordinance but does not contain the tag-and-hold requirement.

Memphis police reported earlier this month that copper thefts are down in Memphis by 87 percent from this time last year. Police director Larry Godwin says the both the city ordinance and new state law have curbed the problem of drug addicts stealing and selling copper and A/C coils.

"[Metal thieves] in North Memphis were stealing copper and walking right down the street to sell it," Godwin said. "We knew if we could get that part in the ordinance about being a licensed dealer and having a 10-day hold, it'd make a difference. But we never expected an 87 percent drop."

Iskiwitz is not against banning quick cash sales and limiting sales to licensed companies. In fact, he supports the state law. But it's the tag-and-hold provision in the city ordinance that has led H. Iskiwitz and Metal Management LLC to avoid getting city permits.

Last week, city court judge Earnestine Dorse ruled that the two companies were in violation of the ordinance and ordered them to get city permits within 30 days. Attorneys for both companies pledged to appeal her decision.

Proponents of the city ordinance claim the tag and hold provision gives police a greater opportunity to catch thieves.

"The tag-and-hold on the most commonly stolen metals gives police evidence so they can prosecute," said Aubrie Kobernus with the Memphis Area Association of Realtors, one of the groups that pushed for the ordinance in 2007.

But Iskiwitz argues that even if police track down a copper thief, there'd be no way to identify a piece of copper since the material doesn't have serial numbers.

Since the tag-and-hold provision went into effect last year, Iskiwitz said he's yet to see a police officer come in searching for a stolen part.

"Tag-and-hold is an incredible burden," he said. "We only have a small yard to store things. We're running out of space."

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