LAKEWOOD RANCH -- For more than a year now, Lakewood Ranch -- and other communities throughout Manatee and Sarasota -- has been the victim of copper wire theft from ground utility boxes attached to streetlights.
Now, Lakewood Ranch officials are taking steps to deter them. The utility boxes, whose tops are visible above ground, will be filled with an impenetrable foam so the wires can't be removed.
The tip about using this special foam came from a maintenance worker, Chief Financial Officer Steve Zielinski told the Inter-District Authority on Tuesday.
"These boxes will be cemented in impenetrable foam so you can't yank the wiring out anymore," Zielinski said.
The wire theft has occurred throughout Lakewood Ranch, mostly on main roads, including Lakewood Ranch Boulevard, and more attempts have been reported recently, officials said.
The utility wires are made of copper, a material that has a high net value and is attractive for re-sale as swap metal.
Lakewood Ranch has been working with the Manatee County Sheriff's Office to investigate the thefts and found that one of their employees may have been responsible for at least a few.
Last December, former Town Hall employee Leif Peterson, 23, of Bradenton, was arrested twice in a span of six days and charged with multiple counts of false information to pawn items and dealing with stolen property. He bonded twice and has a court date slated for later in the week, according to Manatee sheriff's spokesman Dave Bristow.
Lakewood Ranch administration says that Peterson quit in December, days before he was about to be terminated.
"As long as the price of metal and copper are up, you will see this type of crime happening everywhere, all over the country," Bristow said. "They steal copper wiring in air conditioning units and irrigation systems. It's an ongoing problem."
The IDA has spent $21,000 more than budgeted for general repairs, Zielinski reported, including the cost of replacing the utility wires and the cost of the foam-filling deterrent.
Insurance may not cover these costs because they aren't listed as community property. Maintenance workers are being selective and looking for easy-to-target streetlights to inject the foam filling in the wire boxes.
"This really says something about our economy when people go through so much trouble to risk stealing wire," said Alan Roth, IDA treasurer and District 1 vice chairman.
Kathryn Moschella, Lakewood Ranch reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7010. Follow her on Twitter @MoschellaHerald.