“We are having an epidemic on (thefts of) road signs right now,” Ashburn said. “We have lost, since the summer started, close to 300 signs in Walker County. It’s incredible and it’s costing you and me as taxpayers a huge amount of money.”
Ashburn said the county road department recently bought $5,000 worth of blank signs. That cost does not include the man-hours involved in lettering and installing the signs.
Commissioner Bebe Heiskell said it costs $50 to $100 for workers to letter and install a sign. Ashburn in 2001 reported the county spent nearly $90,000 replacing street signs at that time. Road department supervisor Tony Stevens said the county spent about $100,000 last year.
“I don’t know if this is a game that the kids are playing or what, but signs are disappearing at an incredible pace,” he said. “We will prosecute when we catch them doing it.”
County workers Stan White and Rick Jones said the workload is overwhelming. The pair has four pages of road names that need new signs.
“I wouldn’t mind it so much if it was only 15 or 20 a week, but we’re working on 15 to 20 a day,” White said.
Emergency services are also affected, Heiskell said. If firefighters and ambulance drivers cannot find the road signs, they cannot effectively help those in need.
Knoxville resident Douglas McGill, who attended the commissioner’s regular weekly meeting last week, told of a stop sign theft in his area. A driver did not know to stop at intersection where a stop sign had been stolen and killed one person and injured two others. A juvenile vandal was reported for stealing the sign and tried as an adult on manslaughter charges, he said.
Emergency officials say the first eight minutes after an emergency call is a window of opportunity when life is in danger. Walker Fire Chief Randy Camp has said victims have a significantly increased chance of a full recovery if emergency personnel arrive within that time. If drivers get lost due to stolen signs, emergency response times could drop and lives could be lost.
“If emergency personnel have to hesitate, that one or two minutes can mean the difference in whether someone lives or dies,” Ashburn said, adding “a fire doubles every couple of minutes in size.