Budget worries threaten rural crime programs

Issue Date: March 9, 2011
By Christine Souza

They hot-wire tractors, destroy irrigation pumps for the copper wire, and take just about anything that isn't nailed down. And now, criminals who constantly annoy farmers and ranchers may have an easier time, as budget problems threaten rural crime prevention programs in California counties.

Rural deputies who work in the programs say they fear their ranks may be whittled down to nothing.

"When the California Rural Crime Prevention Task Force began more than a dozen years ago, our county had two detectives assigned to the program. We grew to as many as five detectives a few years ago when the copper wire thefts were up. Budget cuts came and now we're back down to two," said Detective Shelby Oliver of the San Joaquin County Sheriff's Department Rural Crime Unit. "Right now with just two of us, we're just getting hammered."

San Joaquin County's is just one of many rural crime units in the state to have fewer deputies on watch. Sgt. Walt Reed, who heads the Kern County Sheriff's Department Rural Crime Investigation Unit, said he has two deputy positions "on the chopping block."

"Kern County is the third-largest county in the state. The unit consists of me and four detectives," Reed said. "Two of those detectives are non-paid officers that are retired and came back to work for me as volunteers. The other two are paid through a grant that may end in July due to the state's budgetary problems."

Funding for the California Rural Crime Prevention Task Force, a program that serves 13 counties in the Central Valley and Central Coast, is scheduled to sunset on July 1. To maintain funding for the program, the California Farm Bureau Federation is backing efforts to provide funding for numerous public safety programs funded by the current increased Vehicle License Fee.

"We're supporting numerous efforts to fund programs to reduce rural crime," said Noelle Cremers, CFBF natural resources and commodities director. "Our members are impacted by crime on a daily basis, so continuing to fund these programs is very important."

Legislation that has attracted CFBF support includes Assembly Bill 66, introduced by Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro, D-Arcata, and sponsored by the California State Sheriffs' Association. It would repeal the sunset date for the 0.15 percent increase in the Vehicle License Fee. Currently, the fee funds a number of public safety programs including rural crime prevention programs.

Two other bills, AB 168 and AB 192, would provide $500 million to support the public safety programs currently funded by the 0.15 percent increase in the vehicle license fee. AB 168 was introduced by Jeff Gorell, R-Camarillo; Cathleen Galgiani, D-Tracy; and Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber. AB 192 was introduced by Dan Logue, R-Linda.

Brian Romanini, a third-generation almond grower who farms in the Wasco area, said he and his neighbors have a close working relationship with the rural crime detectives in Kern County.

"The Rural Crime Investigation Unit has been a great help and as a result of their recent efforts, they were able to think outside the box and use some modern technology to catch two thieves, which was really great," Romanini said. "We've had a variety of different things happen, including theft of copper wire that is 125 feet from my pump. We needed to run the pump for frost protection and found that they opened up the pump, cut my cables and pulled them out of the ground."

To repair the pump, it cost Romanini about $4,500. He said he will not know the extent of the frost damage for a few weeks.

"Sgt. Reed and his team are out there trying to come up with new methods to catch criminals. I'm ecstatic to have someone that I can actually call and say that I have a problem and have them show up at my ranch. They actually come out and meet me and assess the situation," Romanini said.

Concerns about rural crime prevention were on the minds of the people who crammed a meeting room dedicated to the topic at the AgSafe Conference held recently in Monterey. Seated in the front row was Joe Rovito, a biologist for Lassen Canyon Nursery in San Joaquin County.

"Our company farms in Manteca and, like everybody else over the last two years, we had a rash of copper wires ripped out of the pumps," Rovito said. "We don't leave the field until 8 o'clock at night and these guys still go into the field, take batteries out of equipment, they steal fuel wagons … they just drive away with it."

While nothing is off limits for thieves, Rovito and many others at the session said they were particularly concerned about metal thefts, especially with the price of copper having increased to more than $4 a pound.

In an ongoing effort to help combat metal theft, CFBF is sponsoring AB 316, authored by Wilmer Carter, D-Rialto. The bill would authorize local law enforcement authorities who are conducting metal theft investigations to stop vehicles that they suspect are carrying stolen metal or suspect could be a stolen agricultural or construction vehicle. This would augment AB 844, passed in 2008, another Farm Bureau-sponsored metal theft prevention bill intended to make it more difficult for thieves to steal metal and sell it for cash to recycling yards.

Reed said the temptation to violate the law has risen with scrap metal prices.

"The theft of copper wire and other metals is driven by scrap prices and nobody can control that," Reed said. "They are scrapping copper wire at $4 a pound. It is going to go over $5 a pound by this summer, so hang on."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.