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Copper theft prompts Bowie library to seek county money

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Local,Maryland,Matt Connolly

The latest misfortune at what may be Prince George's County's unluckiest library has the County Council reaching into last year's contingency funds.

The copper wiring from the Bowie library's heating and cooling system was stolen early in the summer, necessitating $325,000 in repairs and other costs. The system was brand-new -- just a year earlier, a lightning strike had destroyed the old one.

"The lightning strike I heard about when I got there," said Luis Labra, who began working as the Bowie branch manager in fall 2011. "We were recovering from that when the damage occurred."

Repairs were more expensive than the county anticipated, and the library had to pay for temporary coolers for weeks while things were fixed. Lexington Insurance wouldn't reimburse the county, saying it would have been cheaper to simply replace the whole system -- again.

"It didn't seem logical to me," said Michael Gannon, the county library system's associate director of administrative services. "They were brand-new units. We thought they would have been easier to repair than to replace."

If approved by the County Council, the money would come out of the fiscal 2012 budget's $10 million in contingency funds. No county projects will be affected by the expense.

Though the police investigated the incident, the copper thief has not been caught.

This isn't the only theft for Prince George's County libraries -- the New Carrollton library had the copper wiring ripped from one of its air-conditioning units on Nov. 2. The entire unit had to be replaced for what Gannon said was $100 worth of copper.

"It's not like you're robbing a bank and stealing a lot of money," Gannon said. "It's a shame, really."

The county's libraries now point security cameras at their heating and air-conditioning units.

"All over the place, people are stealing copper," said Kathleen Teaze, the director of the county library system. "The schools are always experiencing this."

In a 2008 report, the FBI called copper theft a nationwide threat to critical infrastructure. Thefts of copper and other metals have risen by 81 percent since then, according to a study the National Insurance Crime Bureau released in March.

Maryland law requires scrap buyers to take information on sellers -- including their names, addresses, driver's license numbers and physical descriptions.

The lightning strike wasn't the Bowie library's first, either. Though the most recent one was more costly, a bolt from a few years earlier took out some of the electronics. The branch has since installed a lightning protection system.

"They say lightning can't strike twice in the same place," Gannon said. "But it looks like it happened there."

mconnolly@washingtonexaminer.com

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