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Answer Desk: Who Removes Abandoned Vehicles?

St. Thomas reader Jane Higgins sent the Source the accompanying photo of a burned out car that has been sitting, apparently abandoned, for days on a popular scenic overlook on Black Point Hill. A second burned out vehicle is just up the road, she says.

Higgins wants to know who will remove this eyesore before the next safari bus load of tourists stops by to enjoy the view?

The answer, unfortunately, may be no one.

Barbara Petersen, the St. Thomas-Water Island administrator and head of the Abandoned Vehicle Task Force, said budget cuts have left the operation unable to function. It’s not just Black Point Hill; abandoned vehicles litter the islands.

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“We have no money to pick them up,” Petersen said.

“We’ve done a good job for seven and a half years,” she said, but at the start of the current fiscal year, the Legislature cut the task force budget from $150,000 to just $25,000. And all of that is long spent.

“The program has been suspended until I can find some money,” she added.

Petersen estimated that the task force picks up an average of 30 vehicles per month from public roads. Additionally it works with the Housing Authority to get rid of abandoned vehicles in housing communities.

He said it costs about $250 to tow and temporarily store each vehicle and to publish the requisite notice in local papers, notifying the owner that his or her vehicle has been determined to be abandoned. The government must keep the vehicle for 14 days and allow the owner to retrieve it. It places a lien against the last known owner.

By law, an owner can be fined up to $1,500, but Petersen said it is not generally practical to impose that amount. First time offenders can pay just $250, basically what it costs the government to deal with the vehicle. Repeat offenders face stiffer penalties.

Owners often claim they sold the junked vehicle, but if they can’t prove it, they are still responsible.

“If you sell a car, you, the owner, must remove your name from that registration,” Petersen said. Don’t leave it to the buyer to do, because chances are he won’t do it; it costs money.

Most of the time, such claims prove to be unfounded anyway. “We’re wrong about 2 percent of the time,” Petersen said. “Ninety-eight percent of the time, we’re right.”

Petersen said the government does collect in many cases. A person cannot register another vehicle if he has an abandoned vehicle lien so that encourages payments.

Collections average between $80,000 and $90,000 a year, she said. That would be almost enough to cover the service, but the money doesn’t go into a revolving fund. It’s dumped into the General Fund to go towards any and all government expenses.

Could an individual or a community group pay the $250 cost to get a junked car out of their neighborhood?

That could cause more problems than it solved. Besides encouraging owners to be irresponsible, it might lead to selective service, and not in a military context.

“You’re worried about a car on Black Point Hill,” Petersen said. But what happens to the clunkers demeaning poor neighborhoods?

“It’s a service that the government should be providing,” she said.

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St. Thomas reader Jane Higgins sent the Source the accompanying photo of a burned out car that has been sitting, apparently abandoned, for days on a popular scenic overlook on Black Point Hill. A second burned out vehicle is just up the road, she says.

Higgins wants to know who will remove this eyesore before the next safari bus load of tourists stops by to enjoy the view?

The answer, unfortunately, may be no one.

Barbara Petersen, the St. Thomas-Water Island administrator and head of the Abandoned Vehicle Task Force, said budget cuts have left the operation unable to function. It’s not just Black Point Hill; abandoned vehicles litter the islands.

“We have no money to pick them up,” Petersen said.

“We’ve done a good job for seven and a half years,” she said, but at the start of the current fiscal year, the Legislature cut the task force budget from $150,000 to just $25,000. And all of that is long spent.

“The program has been suspended until I can find some money,” she added.

Petersen estimated that the task force picks up an average of 30 vehicles per month from public roads. Additionally it works with the Housing Authority to get rid of abandoned vehicles in housing communities.

He said it costs about $250 to tow and temporarily store each vehicle and to publish the requisite notice in local papers, notifying the owner that his or her vehicle has been determined to be abandoned. The government must keep the vehicle for 14 days and allow the owner to retrieve it. It places a lien against the last known owner.

By law, an owner can be fined up to $1,500, but Petersen said it is not generally practical to impose that amount. First time offenders can pay just $250, basically what it costs the government to deal with the vehicle. Repeat offenders face stiffer penalties.

Owners often claim they sold the junked vehicle, but if they can’t prove it, they are still responsible.

“If you sell a car, you, the owner, must remove your name from that registration,” Petersen said. Don’t leave it to the buyer to do, because chances are he won’t do it; it costs money.

Most of the time, such claims prove to be unfounded anyway. “We’re wrong about 2 percent of the time,” Petersen said. “Ninety-eight percent of the time, we’re right.”

Petersen said the government does collect in many cases. A person cannot register another vehicle if he has an abandoned vehicle lien so that encourages payments.

Collections average between $80,000 and $90,000 a year, she said. That would be almost enough to cover the service, but the money doesn’t go into a revolving fund. It’s dumped into the General Fund to go towards any and all government expenses.

Could an individual or a community group pay the $250 cost to get a junked car out of their neighborhood?

That could cause more problems than it solved. Besides encouraging owners to be irresponsible, it might lead to selective service, and not in a military context.

“You’re worried about a car on Black Point Hill,” Petersen said. But what happens to the clunkers demeaning poor neighborhoods?

“It’s a service that the government should be providing,” she said.