Columbus Light & Water is looking to clamp down on an ongoing electric theft problem.
On Thursday, the department’s board of directors unanimously approved allowing General Manager Todd Gale to hire a law enforcement officer to investigate cases of electric theft.
Gale, in an interview with The Dispatch on Friday, said the officer would work part-time on an hourly basis as needed. Gale is still working on the hire. He said the position could be filled by an investigator from the Columbus Police Department or Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office.
Stealing electricity is not a new issue. Gale said it tends to come and go.
“Here lately it’s getting to be more of a problem,” he said. “We’ve started filing papers and making complaints through the court system. We’ve got about eight or 10 active cases right now. It’s taking a lot of my time, and that’s why we have elected to go outside and find an independent investigator.”
CLW will pass investigative costs to those who are caught stealing electricity, rather than CLW’s roughly 12,500 customers.
How is electricity stolen?
Gale said CLW generally encounters two methods of electric theft.
The first: Someone takes a meter from one building, such as an abandoned house, and installs it in place of the one at their residence. This either provides an inaccurate reading when meter readers come by, or lets the person swap out the meter again before the meter is inspected.
“The other way is they will just not even use the meter,” Gale said. “They go in the meter base and through that they call ‘strapping it out,’ they’ll just directly wire it together.”
Gale said there are live wires behind the meter faceplate, which makes the second method especially dangerous.
CLW is installing new digital meters that, in addition to usability improvements for customers, will send alerts to CLW when they’re tampered with.
Utility tampering is illegal in Mississippi, punishable by a $100-$500 fine and up to three months in jail.
CLW also has tampering fines. Gale said they increase in severity with each offense, from $150 to $350 and then doubling for subsequent offenses.
It’s hard to know how much electric thefts have cost CLW.
At $200-$400 per case, the thefts aren’t currently a major problem, but Gale said the department needs to try to reduce cases.
Gale said CLW gets most of its reports about electric theft from neighbors. Meter readers occasionally find some cases, but Gale said that shouldn’t be their priority.
“We’re really just concerned. They’re in those neighborhoods every month and that’s not they’re job to be investigating that stuff,” Gale said. “We don’t want to make it their job. They’re just trying to read a meter.”
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.
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