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Legislators leave equipment renters in lurch

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At the end of Missouri’s 2010 legislative session, a bill aimed at combating theft of leased property such as construction equipment was stuck in committee muck.

With little hope for a revival of the bill – even if lawmakers returned to Jefferson City for an unexpected special session -– the rental company owners who pushed for the bill’s creation will have to start their efforts anew with the 2011 session.

If passed, House Bill 1448 would have made stealing leased property and theft of services – or the intentional nonpayment of fees after rented property has been returned – a criminal offense.

Rental industry officials hope that recategorizing the offense would be enough of a deterrent to put a damper on a problem that creates annual losses for businesses.

“We’re pretty lucky here in Springfield. We’re incredibly careful who we rent to,” said Darick Hemphill, owner of four southwest Missouri General Rental Center locations.  “We’ve been in business for 23 years, and we know who our customers are.”

As president of the Missouri chapter of the American Rental Association, Hemphill is heading up statewide efforts to get rental theft prevention legislation passed.

“We know other rental companies get hit very hard, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year,” he said, estimating that Missouri rental companies lose between 1 percent and 2 percent of their revenues to rental theft each year.  

Nationwide estimates show that U.S. rental businesses lose anywhere from $300 million to as much as $1 billion a year from theft, said Alysia Ryan, director of state government affairs for the American Rental Association.

According to the latest data available from the ARA, Missouri’s rental companies brought in about $668 million in 2008.

Under current Missouri law, in most situations, when rental companies are victims of theft or theft of services, the only recourse is civil action, said Jim Fossard, attorney at Pratt, Fossard, Jensen & Masters LLC.

“If the prosecutor’s office could prove that the person who rented the equipment had intent, it may be considered a theft,” Fossard said. “However, that’s an additional burden of proof for the prosecutor’s office.”

In most situations, Ryan said, rental company owners find themselves absorbing the loss caused by the theft.“By the time you hire a lawyer and take the time to develop the case, you end up losing money,” she said.

Hemphill, who also is an attorney, agreed, noting that even with a judgment from a small claims or circuit court, it won’t necessarily be easy to get the money.

“Most rental businesses are not prepared to go into a courtroom to get their money,” he said.

Despite the fact that the bill stalled in the 2010 legislative session, Hemphill and the Missouri ARA are prepared to take their battle to Jefferson City for another round, hoping a new bill would take the place of HB 1448.

In 2010, HB 1448 was sponsored by Rep. James Viebrock, R-Greene County, but since this was his last year as a state representative, a new sponsor will have to step forward in 2011.

Hemphill and other members of the state ARA have traveled to Jefferson City to make their case to state lawmakers and invited legislators to their monthly meetings. They plan to make additional trips to the state capital this year and continue working with lawmakers to spread the word.

“Next year, we’re going to try again,” he said. “The key is to let people know how much we’re hurting.”[[In-content Ad]]

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