Copper wire thieves have broken air conditioning units, crippled vehicle-charging stations and dimmed thousands of street lights across St. Paul in recent years.

Such thefts cost the city $1.2 million to repair in 2023, and officials say the issue continues to endanger public safety. That's why Gov. Tim Walz joined city leaders Wednesday to publicly back a bill aiming to curb copper wire thefts across Minnesota.

Walz met St. Paul officials at Como Park to discuss the bill, leaning near one of 100 nearby light poles robbed of their copper wires. Thieves disabled hundreds more in the Como neighborhood, and Parks and Recreation Director Andy Rodriguez said 1,800 others across the city are out. Walz said the numbers are unacceptable, but he believes state legislators will pass a bill addressing the issue.

"I feel very confident they'll get it done. This is the type of stuff [that] should be done this year, in a nonbudget year," Walz said. "The pace of this has increased. The problem has become more apparent. The time to address it is now, and the Legislature's hearing that."

The bills, authored by Rep. Athena Hollins, DFL-St. Paul, and Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, would require a commissioner-approved license for people who sell copper in Minnesota. Businesses buying copper would be required to track each sale and scan sellers' licenses. It mirrors a 2023 bill which, Walz said, led to a 90% decrease in catalytic converter thefts. If passed into law, the copper wire theft bill could come into effect as soon as Jan. 1, 2025.

Copper wire thefts surged in recent years, accounting for only $250,000 in repairs for St. Paul in 2019. Thieves outpaced that months into 2024, stripping copper wire from around 2,000 street lights this February. It costs around $2,000 to repair and replace each light. Although city workers replace dozens of street lights a day, thanks in part to $500,000 approved to hire a full-time electrician crew, thieves steal wire from those lights within days or hours of crews fixing them. And it's not just street lights.

"If it's got copper in it, people are going after it," said St. Paul Police Chief Axel Henry.

Thieves pull copper wire from traffic signals, electric vehicle charging stations, and even recreation centers' air conditioning units. Officials have run the gamut on solutions, trying smaller wires and silent alarms, and welding street lights' access panels shut. None have deterred thieves who sometimes leave one location to steal copper from another. Residents have blamed copper wire thieves for the Christmas Eve death of 64-year-old Steven Wirtz and his dog. Both were struck by a car on W. Maryland Avenue and Park Street — an area darkened by thieves who stole copper wire from several street lights.

"We're starting to realize that this property crime is a safety issue and it's putting everyone in harm's way," Henry said. "We need to take away the market for this. The incentive to steal copper goes away if you can't legally offload it and sell it somewhere else."

Citing a letter with signatures from 38 mayors from Minneapolis, the Iron Range and across Minnesota, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said copper wire theft is a statewide issue which could be fixed by Hollins' bill.

"This is a problem that's impacting a lot of cities in our community that mayors are seeing as a challenge. … It's a problem that's costing our taxpayers, via our cities, millions of dollars every year that we can significantly curtail with a $47,000 expenditure from the state every year," Carter said, referring to an annual cost estimate for the bill.

"With over 30,000 lights across our city, this just isn't a problem that we'll be able to effectively chase out of existence. We've got to get in front of it."