County Engineer Mike Short and county commissioners said the stealing of county road signs, mostly by youth, is creating dangerous situations for residents needing emergency services.
County officials spoke recently of one large number of signs to be recovered after a Kansas resident called District 2 Commissioner Jeff Burrough. The caller saw one minor carry a sign into a house.
"About two days later, a man from Century 21 called me," Burrough said recently. "They own this home, and evidently (the family) got evicted. I think they bought the home and probably got it repoed, and they had to get out. So they got out, and the guy who was cleaning the home up called and said, 'I found something that you probably want back.'
Burrough went to the home and found 25 signs in a bedroom closet, which Burrough retrieved. Most of them were reusable, he said, but he noted that the cost of replacing that many signs when lost or damaged can run into thousands of dollars. He said the problem is happening in all four county districts.
Asked about his own district, District 4 Commissioner Steven Aderholt said, "It's not as bad as in (Burrough's) district, but yeah, it is in every district."
Burrough said he could probably get in the car immediately, ride around, and find another 50 missing.
"I've got videos of kids hitting them with lead pipes, that people have sent me," Burrough said. "Out of all these times it has happened, I've probably known about four of them. But where do I pick and choose on who is having fun and just ruining the kid's life?
"I've even had kids who have big monster trucks and they have a big bumper cage on the front of them," Burrough said. "They will just take time and run over the stop sign with the two 911 signs on top of them. They just mow them over. They will go through Nauvoo and hit every one of them, just for fun," and leaving tire tracks behind.
Short, who confirmed the incident in Kansas, said while an exact accurate count does not exist, county officials estimate 15,000 county road signs are set up across the county.
"Each sign, when you consider an employee, the cost of materials, the time it takes to put it up, we consider each sign a minimum (cost) of $100," he said.
He said it may not seem like much for someone to take a county road sign off, but the sign still has to be replaced.
The loss of those signs also endangers people who are needing a sheriff's car, fire truck or an ambulance, depending on the emergency, delaying response times. Burrough pointed out Regional Paramedical Services has reported "several times they are five to 10 minutes later than they should have have been trying to find where they are going because GPS (devices) are not right in Walker County."
"People have a difficult time finding a remote location and certainly first responders are hampered if it is somewhat of a location that is out of the way," Short said.
The street sign thefts are a continuing problem, Short said.
"We put up street signs every day," he said. "Obviously, the regulatory signs, like a stop sign, is the most important to us, but we take it serious and we get them up as quickly as we can once they are reported."
Most of the thefts are considered to be happening because teenagers are stealing them for pleasure. "Someone just wanted to put it in their barn or in a house - something like that," he said.
Education of students and others about the problem would possibly help decrease thefts and/or vandalism, as well as prosecution to a point, Short said. Burrough said he also feels education could help, as well as parents watching their children more closely. He said the county could possibly send a flyer around to the high schools.
Aderholt said, "It is a question of how do you make people not steal." Burrough said there is also the problem of those who may be in their 30s and take target practice by shooting at signs.
Short also suggested putting cameras on signs that "traditionally go missing fairly quickly," where the thief's face would be caught in the act, leading to a fine. Aderholt said he has looked into putting radio-frequency identification, or RFID, chips on signs to send signals of where it is at, which is cost-prohibitive for now — but won't be forever.
"But we're getting to the point low-cost technology, added to a product like a road sign, is very much going to be available in the future," Aderholt said.
Burrough and Aderholt both gave credit to county employee Dave Sexton, who is replacing signs on a daily basis. Steven Aderholt, the District 4 commissioner, noted recently he called up asking for a sign in his district. "I come back through an hour later and it was done," he said.