Brownfield has an ongoing problem with utility meter-tampering, despite stiffer penalties enacted by the city council two years ago.

The council voted unanimously in 2012 to restructure the city’s ordinance code to reflect higher fines for repeat offenders and delay reconnection of utility services until those fines are paid.

Meter-tampering is usually in effort to bypass service charges and obtain free access to residential electricity.

City Inspector Mitch McElroy and Electrical Superintendent Jeff Davis have said they have both witnessed numerous cases of the offense.

McElroy and Davis described some examples of meter-tampering cases they’ve investigated with the help of city maintenance staff, and the creative methods utility service-thieves have used.

Everything from using jumper cables to transfer power to stealing meters from one residence and installing them at another.

“Not only is it illegal, it is highly dangerous,” McElroy said. “There is a tremendous amount of power running through those lines and it will kill
you if you handle it wrong.”

The city employees say that even if meter-tamperers don’t use a large amount of electricity, they are still cheating the city out of money, including their $250 service deposit.

Davis noted that with fines for meter-tampering previously  at less than $150, thieves had a better deal financially than honest utility account-holders.

“They’d rather steal than pay the deposit,” he said.

New regulations allow the city to assess further charges against recurring power thieves, including all charges associated with equipment and labor incurred while connecting or disconnecting their power.

McElroy said he has contacted the police department each time he observes the offense and also writes complaints to take to the municipal judge, who assesses a fine.

He also noted past cases in which a landlord was unaware of a tenant’s meter-tampering, but was ultimately left with the costs of the damage to the city-owned property.

“They’re still responsible for making sure everything is OK at that rental house,” he said.

Property owners in that situation are most likely to contest the citations and request a jury trial.

McElroy said it is a year-round issue that the city faces and employees keep a watchful eye for abusers of the local power grid.

“We see some creative stuff,” he said. “It’s usually one or two a week and sometimes the fines and tickets they have to pay are a lot more than if they had just paid their bill in the first place.”