September 28, 2013 10:19:07 PM
Nathan Gregory - firstname.lastname@example.org
A couple of years ago, when Lowndes County road manager Ronnie Burns was driving around near Caledonia doing routine checks, he kept noticing an unusually high number of road signs missing.
Someone told Burns a vehicle often parked near the spots where the markers disappeared. Burns passed the word along to county deputies, who tracked the car down. They went to the house where the teenage driver lived.
It turned out he wasn't acting alone. He and a few cohorts were building a collection. He was just storing the loot.
"He had probably 40 or 50 signs in a shed out there," Burns said. "The deputy asked me, 'Do you want to prosecute them?' I said, 'No...I want them to be at the barn by our office in the morning at 7 o'clock. I'm gonna let them put all these signs back up.'"
How long it took the culprits to get their loot, Burns isn't sure. He knows it took them three days to put the signs back where they belong, though.
Burns believes they learned their lesson more effectively and cheaply, as opposed to being charged with the typical misdemeanor for defacing public property.
This year, the county has spent an estimated $11,000 on replacing county road signs. At about $37 a sign, that's 300 signs. Based on work orders, Burns said about 200 of those are from theft or intentional damage.
"People have stolen them. They've spray painted on them. They've shot holes on them with guns," he said. "They take one bolt out and flip them upside down."
Road markers with unusual names also turn up missing a good bit, he said.
"If it comes to a name like Dummy Line Road, or some kind of name like that, they're more likely to get that than just a regular name sign," Burns said. "They'll jump on something like that. And I guess they get the stop signs to be getting them."
This also isn't uncommon in the city of Columbus or Oktibbeha County. Columbus public works interim director Casey Bush said his tally this year has been right in line with Lowndes County's and he replaces anywhere from 150 to 200 a year, with each sign costing about the same to replace.
"Our biggest problem is the street signs with the names on them. We find them broken off. I think we've had a few cases where they were in somebody's house. We have a lot of cases with graffiti on the signs." Bush said. "The street signs cost about the same (as the county's), but the stop signs run about $120 apiece."
The activity hasn't been as rampant or costly in Oktibbeha County, road manager Victor Collins said. But it still happens. Eighteen stop signs have come up missing or vandalized along with 92 road signs and 23 posts that have to go up with the signs, all adding up to $2,551.39, he said.
But much more of a problem than money is the safety hazard a missing sign presents to motorists and first responders, Burns said.
"When somebody takes a sign or spray paints over it they could be putting somebody's life in danger," he said. "I don't think they think about that sometimes. It's just having fun and having one in your room, but it's a real dangerous situation. If they're not there and you've got people from out of town or local people might forget and run a stop sign and have a wreck and kill somebody. If you call an ambulance or emergency vehicle and it goes out and somebody's taken a name sign off the top of that post...sometimes you've got new people on the ambulances and it could be life or death if that road name sign is not there to get them in there."
Burns, Collins and Bush each encouraged people who see a missing or defaced marker to call their departments so they can replace them more quickly.
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.