Between a scrap and a hard place
By Matt Hanley ~ For The Beacon-News February 16, 2013 2:46PM
Mike Schomer works at his desk inside Schomer's trading post in Aurora on Monday, January 7, 2013. During checks of scrap yards and pawn shops earlier this year, Aurora police found seven businesses, including Schomer's that had multiple violations of a city ordinance designed to discourage selling stolen goods at second-hand shops. The business were fined $1000 rather than being shut down which the city has the power to do under the ordinance. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media
Violations of scrap ordinance
Businesses with more than one violation of the city’s pawn and scrap ordinance
S and S Metal: Requested written citation, did not require photo ID; failure to obtain seller information; purchased items from people on “Do Not Buy/Pawn” list; failure to obtain vehicle information.
A-1 Recycling: No name/vehicle/ info documented; failure to obtain digital photo of property and ID card of seller; failure to report items to LeadsOnline; failure to record date/time of transaction; failure to comply with prohibition against people on “Do Not Buy/Pawn” list.
Aurora Metal Recycling: Failure to record name/address, other required info of seller and vehicle info; failure to obtain digital photos of ID and property; failure to record date/time of transaction; failure to report to LeadsOnline; failure to comply with “Do Not Buy/Pawn” list.
Get Green Recycling: Used another customer’s name to complete transaction; failure to comply with prohibition against accepting items from shopping cart; failure to report to LeadsOnline; failure to obtain seller information including digital photograph and vehicle information; failure to comply with prohibition of doing business with people on “Do Not Pawn/Buy” list.
Fox Valley Iron and Metal: Requested written citation, did not require photo ID, seller information, vehicle information, date/time of transaction; failure to report to LeadsOnline; failure to obtain digital photo of property purchased
Schomer’s Trading Post: Requested written citation, did not require photo ID.; failure to report to LeadsOnline; failure to obtain digital photograph of property and recording date/time of transaction; failure to comply with 30-day waiting period.
Arenkills: Requested written citation, did not require photo ID; failure to record seller information, digital photo of property, failure to report to LeadsOnline; failure to comply with waiting period before melting down property; failure to record date/time of transaction, serial numbers.
Source: City of Aurora
Updated: March 18, 2013 6:03AM
AURORA — During checks of scrap yards and pawn shops last year, Aurora police found seven businesses had multiple violations of a city ordinance designed to discourage selling stolen goods at second-hand shops. Of the nine businesses inspected, some had as many as five violations.
According to the city ordinance, the city had the right to shut down any of these businesses. Despite the violations and despite a huge surge in burglaries, The Beacon-News has learned that Aurora officials decided not to suspend any licenses, and instead chose to issue a $1,000 fine.
City officials feel the fines sent a strong message to the business owners while avoiding litigation that could have cost taxpayers thousands of dollars. But the decision has frustrated some Aurora police officers and has some pawn shop owners wondering the true purpose of the ordinance.
The conflict highlights the friction between the intent of the ordinance and the reality of its enforcement.
The city of Aurora has been trying to clamp down on scrap and pawn shop business practices for at least six years. In 2007, spurred by police concerns about stolen goods being sold locally, the City Council passed a new ordinance that strengthened local oversight. The ordinance worked as a companion to the state’s Pawnbroker Regulation Act. Currently, 92 businesses are governed by that ordinance.
Aurora now requires a pawn shop or scrap yard to keep detailed records of customers and what they bring in. Every time an item is purchased, the store employee must: ask for a photo ID, take a picture of the ID, check the name against the banned sellers list, record the time and date of the sale, take a picture of the item bought, record all the biographical information with an online system that police can check daily and, finally, hold most items for 30 days before re-selling them. (Last March, the city loosened the ordinance, removing the requirement to document items that were not individually identifiable — such as a generic video game — and allowing some items to be photographed in bulk.)
But while many pawn brokers say the regulations are a pain, police say it’s a crime-solving tool.
Originally, police did most of their compliance checks through the LeadsOnline, a website that helps investigators look for stolen goods. Across the country, second-hand shops enter purchases into the online database. Police can search to see if stolen items have been brought in.
In August 2011, less than a month after Aurora police enrolled in LeadsOnline, they nabbed five people who had been selling stolen merchandise. A few weeks later, police caught a man who had sold 23 city of Aurora sewer grates to a scrapyard. Police heralded the system’s success not just for the arrests but because it allows police to track pawn shops almost in real time.
At first, police concentrated mostly on this online monitoring. But last summer, they decided to send in undercover officers posing as potential sellers — similar to checks on liquor and tobacco licenses. For seven businesses, the results were not good.
A strong message
The violations ranged from simply not asking for a photo ID to using another customer’s name on the transaction form. According to city spokesman Dan Ferrelli, an employee at Get Green Recycling wrote “a loyal customer” as the seller’s name. That was one of five violations at Get Green, police said.
After the checks, city officials decided not to revoke any business licenses, although it was within their rights to do so. Instead, the city decided to revoke the company’s $1,000 insurance bond with the city, then require them to again file the bond — essentially fining each company $1,000.
Ferrelli said these checks were the first time the city had done undercover inspections and there could have been some confusion.
“The city decided instead of closing seven businesses, it was better to make sure everyone was on the same page,” he said. “Going forward, we’re confident that businesses understand the ordinance. They got hit in the pocketbook, and we think that sent a strong message.”
Ferrelli said officials did feel it was in the city’s best interest not to shut down seven businesses — a dramatic decision that could have led to costly legal battles during a time of tight budgets.
According to Ferrelli, the decision to fine the businesses, rather than suspend any licenses, was made by the entire city staff leadership, including Police Chief Greg Thomas.
“It is a big deal to take a business license away,” Thomas said. “It doesn’t just impact that business owner, but anyone they employ is impacted, too.”
Thomas was supportive of the decision to fine the businesses this time.
“With any subsequent violations, I would certainly expect a stronger stance will be taken,” Thomas said.
Ferrelli said each business received written notice that their license will be revoked if future violations occur and, so far, none have occurred. Thomas said future inspections are likely.
Some pawn shop owners say Aurora’s ordinance does little without help from neighbors.
Schomer’s Trading Post is a squat little building at 169 S. Lake St. The windows are piled high with furniture and other items the store has bought. Before the city banned the practice, dryers and couches used to sit alongside the building, where they could be looked over by the hundreds of drivers heading south on Route 31.
The store has been there since Mike Schomer’s father opened the place 43 years ago. Mike Schomer is there pretty much every day, often sitting in the old barber chairs with friends, trying to solve the problems of the world. Of the seven businesses with multiple violations, he was the only owner willing to talk to The Beacon-News.
Schomer sees the pawn ordinance as a “political idea” — something that looks nice in a campaign but doesn’t do much to solve a problem. He says its definitely hurt his business. Schomer no longer buys many of the smaller items that he used to re-sell for a few dollars. The paperwork and the holding time isn’t worth it.
Schomer believes the ordinance pushes his customers to neighboring towns or onto the streets.
“Drive over to Montgomery and sell your bag of tools, and you won’t be subjected to ridicule,” he said. “There’s not a bar in town that someone doesn’t have something to sell, and the transaction is happening on the spot.”
According to police, during last summer’s check, a Schomer’s employee did not require a photo ID, did not report purchased merchandise to the online system, did not take a picture of the item and did not comply with the 30-day waiting period.
Schomer doesn’t want to buy stolen goods, but he says it’s not his job to look across and determine if the customer is a good guy or a bad guy. And he admits he doesn’t have a better solution than the city’s current ordinance.
“I’m not against the idea, and I don’t know what the alternative would be,” he said.