Tuesday, February 27, 2001

Contractors ripped off

Millions worth of equipment stolen from job sites

By David Eck
Enquirer Contributor

        Contractor Stephen J. Gross remembers an early-morning call last summer from one of his employees at a Northern Kentucky construction site. Had someone borrowed the company's $30,000 Bobcat mechanical loader?

        No, replied Mr. Gross, president of Stephen Gross & Sons Inc. general contractors in Hamilton. It should still be at the site, he said.

        Stolen. Along with its set of fork attachments. Tire marks from a larger vehicle led away from the Bobcat's last-known location.

        Thefts such as this one from construction sites plague builders through out the booming Cincinnati area and nationwide.

        Thefts of construction vehicles, equipment, tools and appliances are on the rise and are becoming costly for contractors, taxpayers and anyone pricing out home or business improvements.

        Local builders say the thefts — often by crime rings that specifically target construction sites — have forced them to spend thousands of dollars to hire security guards, buy expensive locks and other security equipment, replace stolen items and pay higher insurance costs.

        “Any time there is any major construction, those are easy targets, especially in the first year” of work on projects such as Paul Brown Stadium, said Cincinnati Police Spc. Roger Robbins, a robbery-burglary coordinator.

        Tools make up 80 percent of the thefts, police say. Building materials are another popular target.

        In Ohio, the dollar loss from construction site thefts is in excess of $200 million a year, said Glenn Drees, loss control consultant at Schiff, Kreidler-Shell, an insurance agency that provides insurance and risk services to contractors. In Kentucky, the loss is estimated at $150 million annually, Mr. Drees said.

        “What we try to do is help (contractors) so that they are less of a target. Most of this stuff is done by professionals,” Mr.

        Drees said. “Because the economy's been good and construction's been good, especially in Cincinnati ... it is rising.”

        To protect their equipment, contractors are installing stronger, more permanent lighting at job sites, building lockable security fences, and wiring tool sheds and mobile offices with burglar alarms that alert police to break-ins.

        Schumacher Dugan Construction Inc., a commercial and industrial builder based in West Chester Township, cut its losses from theft from $10,000 in 1997 to $2,000 last year after installing alarms on its tool trailers and notifying local police of where its jobs are located, said Bob Wassler, executive vice president.

        The company uses private security to protect larger projects nearing completion and spent $5,000 to $7,000 in one-time costs on security measures, Mr. Wassler said.

        Though theft loss isn't usually built into individual job bids, it can eventually increase the overall cost of construction on public and private projects.

        “It raises our cost of doing business,” Mr. Gross said. “In the long run your overhead goes up, either for rising insurance costs or replacing tools sooner than you normally would. As the cost of business goes up, presumably your prices go up.”

        Dugan & Meyers Construction Co., a general contractor, sometimes gives workers at vulnerable job sites weekend hours to deter theft of building materials and equipment. The company averages $10,000 lost yearly to theft.

        Home builders say they face an uphill battle against theft because their sites tend to be isolated, with few neighbors and little outside lighting. Homes under construction are almost impossible to secure, said David Seuberling, owner of Spencer Hill Homes and president of the Home Builders Association of Greater Cincinnati.

        “If someone decides to break into a house under construction, there's really no way to stop them,” he said.

        That's why some home builders remove most tools overnight and try to delay receiving appliances until they can be installed immediately.

        “We don't have them brought out anymore until we can secure the house at night,” said Joe Schwarz, president of Butler County home builder J-II Homes Inc.

        And anything is vulnerable.

        “Bobcats and front-end loaders are probably the two things that are taken the most as far as big equipment,” Mr. Drees said. “As far as smaller equipment it's typically generators and welders.”

        Larger items are sometimes sent out of the country or dismantled and sold as parts. Smaller things can be sold to other builders or end up at flea markets.

        Sometimes contractors are their own worst enemy.

        “It's always amazed me that you'd have a contractor who is willing to buy a tool that's hot,” said Charlie Fischer, owner of Craftsman Electric in Silverton. “If people would quit buying hot tools there wouldn't be a market for it.”


               In Cincinnati, the number of construction site breaking and entering reports to police jumped from 37 citywide in 1998 to 51 in 1999 and again in 2000. Similar statistics aren't available for suburban communities, but police there say its a growing problem:

        • Hamilton County sheriff's deputies last montharrested three people and recovered about $100,000 in construction tools and appliances taken from area building sites. Two of the men charged were spotted loading goods into a pickup at a residential building site in Hamilton County. They led deputies to a third man, who police say had stored hundreds of stolen items at his Springfield Township home.

        • In March 2000, Monroe police charged two men in connection with a rash of thefts from construction trucks. Police there recovered a large cache of stolen power tools and building equipment.

        • Two months before, Butler County sheriff's deputies charged a Hamilton man with stealing tools from a residential site in Liberty Township. He had loaded up a truck with stolen tools but then got stuck in snow and called a tow truck for help.


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