If you find a city street sign from Santa under your Christmas tree, you might want to give it back.
The Missoula Traffic Services Department is witnessing an unprecedented spate of street sign theft, epitomized by the 79 signs that had to recently be replaced in the University Neighborhood.
"I just think it's kind of becoming a trendy thing," says Traffic Services Coordinator Wayne Gravatt, who attributes the phenomenon largely to fraternity pranks and bored teens. "You know, 'Let's get drunk as hell, we'll get all these signs.'"
Gravatt says thieves generally target catchy names like Easy Street and Mary Jane Boulevard. Since Mary Jane Boulevard was christened behind Reserve Street about five years ago, traffic services has had to replace signs there three different times.
"Oh Christ, Mary Jane has been a nightmare," Gravatt says.
To dissuade pranksters and collectors, the city is making signs less attractive and tougher to get. For instance, Mary Jane Boulevard is now MJ BLVD and Missoula Avenue is MSLA AVE. Gravatt's team is also progressively erecting taller poles that, in theory, make signs more difficult to reach.
"We're still losing some of them," he says.
And while it's tough not to chuckle a bit, the thefts are hitting the city solidly in the checkbook. Recently replaced University Neighborhood signs cost the city $6,488.65. During a time of ever-lowering bottom lines, that's hard for Gravatt to swallow.
"It's a monstrous cost for me," he says.
The problem reaches beyond just money. Missing street signs could prompt emergency responders to lose their bearings while racing to a crisis.
"It's the difference between life and death," Gravatt says. "So, that's the part of it that's really, really scary."
Street sign theft is a misdemeanor punishable by a $1,500 fine. Gravatt says he's not aiming to punish culprits. He just wants his signs.
"We're not looking to arrest anybody," he says. "It just would be nice if they could give them back.