Abandoned Vehicles: Shift gears for a successful program

Worcester's Abandoned Vehicle Removal Program success story

Kenneth H. Seims
Senior Staff Assistant
Worcester Department of Public Works and Parks
City of Worcester, Massachusetts

By the fall of 2002, the complaints about abandoned vehicles (AVs) on the streets of Worcester had reached a crescendo with calls for action from the Mayor, the City Manager, City Councilors, neighborhood associations and the general public alike. The blight of these eyesores scattered throughout the city streets tainted the image of the second largest city in New England, suggesting that no one cared. This was far from the truth but the procedures in place for the City to remove these wrecks were cumbersome, inefficient and unfocused.

Early in 2003, after months of continued criticism from City Councilors concerning the ineffectiveness of the City's progress in dealing with these abandoned vehicles, DPW volunteered to take on this challenge and relieve the City agency that previously had this responsibility. Its inclusion into DPW's realm was a logical extension of DPW's ever-expanding Keep Worcester Clean initiative.

The early days
Once DPW became responsible for this program, it assembled a team to identify the actions needed to respond more quickly to citizen calls to remove an abandoned vehicle and to eliminate or minimize the expense to the City. It quickly determined that a successful program would have four essential elements:

  1. Authority to remove an abandoned vehicle from our streets.

  2. A centralized, Customer Service reporting system with telephone and Internet access to take citizen reports of alleged AVs.

  3. A tracking procedure that records the vehicle profile (location, make, model, color, VIN) as well as the reason for designating the vehicle as abandoned and a mechanism to identify and notify the last registered owner of their liability for the penalties stipulated in the statutes.

  4. A method to have those found responsible pay the full cost of removal plus a penalty.

The existing Massachusetts General Law (c. 90 Section 22 C) gave us the authority to remove any vehicle that met both of the following conditions: [1]...the city reasonably deems that any motor vehicle is apparently abandoned by its owner AND [2] standing for more than seventy-two hours upon a public or private way therein... The criteria for deeming a vehicle to be abandoned was subjective but involved conditions such as no registration plates, attached plates (on the wrong vehicle), expired registration and insurance cancelled, as well as the general condition of the vehicle (i.e., multiple flats, missing wheels, broken windows or filled with trash).

A new Customer Service reporting system was implemented with a specific AV reporting screen to suit our needs and designed to capture as much detail as possible (exact location, make, model, color, plate number [if any] and the condition of the vehicle). Parking Control Officers were assigned to investigate each report within 24 hours. We have found that some citizens abuse the system by reporting vehicles that are not abandoned but may be taking up their favorite parking space or belong to a neighbor with whom they are feuding. For this reason, defining an "abandoned vehicle" is crucial to the integrity of the program.

An AV Log Sheet captures the vehicle profile and is filled out when the vehicle is "green tagged." The green tag refers to the notification sticker that is placed on the driver's side window informing the public and owner that the vehicle has been deemed "abandoned" and that it will be towed in 72 hours. The log sheet also serves as the transmittal document to and from the towing contractor, indicating where the vehicles are located and what the results are of our towers' site visits (either Moved By Owner [MBO] or Towed, including the exact date).

After 72 hours, the vehicle is towed to the tow company's storage yard if not "moved by owner." A citation consisting of both penalty and administrative costs, in the amount of $450, is issued to the last registered owner of the vehicle. The last registered owner is responsible unless it can be demonstrated that the ownership of the vehicle was legally transferred prior to the violation. The Parking Administrator, a city employee working in the Treasury Department, is responsible for scheduling hearings and adjudicating the cases.

The cudgel of coercion
The real force behind this program is the method used to hold violators responsible. We knew from earlier experience that sending out notices for vehicle owners to appear for a hearing and answer for their offense of vehicle abandonment is one thing. Getting them to actually appear at the hearing is another matter altogether. We decided very early on that any of those who failed to appear for their hearing were to be considered responsible by default. After more than four years, statistics show about a 30% appearance rate. Still needed, however, was a way to pressure responsible persons to answer for their offense and require them to pay their fine.

DPW, working closely with the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV), created a way to "mark" no-show violators in the RMV data base. The "mark" meant that the individual was prevented from doing any future business with the RMV, such as renewing their driver's license or registering or re-registering another vehicle, until they settled up with the City of Worcester and paid their outstanding fine. This "marking" ability became the muscle behind the Abandoned Vehicle Removal Program (AVRP) as violators could no longer just ignore the consequences of their actions. Since the inception of the "marking" program, there has been a steady stream of three to five violators a week, some whose vehicles were towed two or three years ago, who appear and are anxious to pay their fine so they can, once again, renew their driver's license or register an automobile.

AVRP today
The City's AVRP is proclaimed by City Councilors and neighborhood associations as a resounding success. Its effectiveness is apparent in every neighborhood and its structure has eliminated any budgetary expense. Prior to its inception, the City was expending about $25,000 per year to remove only a small number of AVs from its streets. In contrast, our revenues exceed expenses by more than $220,000 (since 2003) and we have a highly effective and appreciated program.

  DPW Abandoned Vehicle Removal Program (by calendar year)

As of December 31, 2007, we have tagged 7,127 vehicles. The table at left shows the yearly activity.

The volume of AVs has declined each year from a high of 2,123 in the first full year (2004) to a total of 729 in 2007. Equally as impressive is the fact that the percentage of vehicles towed has declined from a high of 53% in 2003 to 31% in 2007. The dreaded "green tag" is well known and respected throughout the city and residents know that three days after that tag is applied, a tow truck will appear and remove the vehicle from the street.

On the financial side, the AVRP has become a new revenue stream for the City. Not only have we been successful in collecting the fines from the violators, but with the last re-bid of the towing contract, the contract was won with a bid that has the contractor paying us for each vehicle towed due to the favorable market for scrap metal.

One of the many vehicular carcasses that were littering the streets of Worcester, MA in April 2003

The City of Worcester is, for the most part, an AV-free city. Though we receive from 8 to 10 AV reports each week, better than 55% are either active registrations or found not to be there when we visit the site, usually within 24 hours of the report. With an efficient, cost-effective process in place to deal with them in a timely manner, AVs are no longer a source of criticism by City Councilors but instead one for plaudits. The tenets of Worcester's AVRP fit all communities, both large and small. The AVRP is a program frequently cited by citizens and City Councilors alike as the quintessential model where government thoughtfully and imaginatively solved a nagging problem without spending more money.

Kenneth Seims can be reached at (508) 799-1476 or SeimsK@ci.worcester.ma.us.