Beaver Johnson has been a scrap metal dealer in Pine Bluff for 20 years, and he says this is where he wants to continue his 10-employee business. But he’s already engaged in talks with White Hall officials and leaning toward relocating Johnson’s Metal Recyclers there if Pine Bluff leaders “start imposing too many requirements and restrictions” on his firm.
“I want to stay in Pine Bluff,” he said Monday, “but I mostly want to be within a city that supports its small businesses. It seems that some city governments are having a knee-jerk reaction to some situations and thinking that imposing additional requirements and restrictions on small businesses might be the best way to straighten out those problems. But you can’t turn trouble around by chasing away businesses, because all that does is lead to new economic predicaments that will probably contribute to the original problem.”
Johnson was referencing a proposed ordinance slated for a vote at tonight’s Pine Bluff City Council meeting. The measure’s sponsor, Alderwoman Thelma Walker, said its purpose is to “strengthen the city’s rules and regulations pertaining to the operation and reporting requirements of scrap or junk dealers and recyclers in the city to help combat” what she sees as a “significant problem” of “the theft of copper and other metals for sale as scrap for recycling.”
Walker’s proposal would amend current city guidance to require Johnson and other scrap metal dealers to provide to the police department a monthly electronic report on specific “nonferrous metal and scrap metal” purchases. Dealers who fail to comply or knowingly provide false information would face possible misdemeanor charges with convictions carrying jail sentences and fines up to 180 days and $1,000, respectively, or both.
Johnson contends that Walker’s ordinance is unnecessary because not only do similar state mandates exist, but the dealers’ electronic records are available daily to law enforcement agencies.
“Police can access the record whenever they like,” Johnson said, “and our transactions are entered immediately as they occur. So why should I be tagged with the additional time and cost requirements to group and send the records on a monthly basis? That’s an unnecessary duplication of effort that isn’t going to add a single thing to what’s already in place. And why would it be better to have monthly reporting instead of a daily inspection? If it’s just monthly, any thieves would be getting a 30-day head start.”
Johnson had previously expressed his displeasure to the full council and last week repeated himself in a less formal setting — a public health and welfare committee meeting attended by Walker and Alderman Lloyd Holcomb Jr., who chairs the panel. Holcomb and Walker voted to recommend the proposal for the council’s adoption tonight. Meanwhile, however, Walker said she would discuss the ordinance with Assistant City Attorney Joe Childers, but wouldn’t be considering amending it.
Mayor Debe Hollingsworth also attended the committee session, and agreed with Johnson that the matter may be more of an enforcement issue in which police rather than dealers should have increased responsibilities.
“I think we need to ensure compliance before forcing more things on businesses,” she said.
Walker stated sympathy for Johnson, but didn’t yield. Walker said she’s simply “trying to cut down on illegal activity,” including the theft and sale of manhole covers from city streets and the taking of copper wiring from burglarized residential and commercial properties here. She told Johnson that she doesn’t think he’s a “bad dealer” who is buying stolen goods, but “everyone has to help pay the price of making sure things are done right when some people aren’t doing what they should.”
“Individuals who break the law need to be held accountable,” Johnson said. “I just can’t see a need to punish law-abiding citizens because someone else seeks to break the law. I follow the law and people know me. There are some bad dealers, but most are honest. I made up my mind a long time ago that I can make an honest living and I’ll get out of this business if I can’t continue to be honest. The system in place for the scrap metal recycling industry is working well when everyone takes care of their responsibilities, so why would there be a need to reinvent the wheel?”
“Something’s got to be done to bring this problem under control,” Walker said. “I think that as a council member I should look for ways to help citizens in trying to get this problem of thefts down. I think this is a good step in that direction. Maybe Mr. Johnson doesn’t think a monthly report to the police would be helpful, but a police officer can look at that and sometimes see a red flag that might lead to something. We’ve got to do something.”
Hollingsworth suggested that perhaps a brief check by the police at any specific time might be a better practice.
“I would prefer that we looked into matters as things came up,” she said after the committee discussion.
Holcomb said he understands Johnson’s frustration.
“I think we have reputable dealers who are falling victim to irreparable dealers,” Holcomb said. “Mr. Johnson has been more than cooperative in providing detailed information to the council members. I have absolutely no doubt that he’s an honest man, an honest dealer. I appreciate him.”
The mayor says she hopes “something beneficial to everyone” can be “worked out.”
“Sometimes it’s impossible for the council and mayor to do what’s best for every individual,” Hollingsworth said. “What’s best for one person isn’t always so good for another, and I know that Alderwoman Walker is carefully weighing both sides of this issue. I just want us to be careful and remember that we should do our best to be business-friendly and treat small businesses with the same courtesy as we would extend to a big business. We can’t afford to lose any businesses or jobs here, and we’ll be challenged to recruit bigger industries here with better salaries and benefits if we alienate our smaller businesses.
“On something like this, I would like for us to ask ourselves if we’ve left any stone unturned,” she continued. “We need to make sure that we’ve exhausted all our city resources before we begin putting additional demands on taxpaying businesses or individuals. We should first have a dialogue with our police leaders to see what additional steps they might recommend. We need to start by making sure we’re doing what we should do as a city, and then determine what else should be done.”