Junker dilemma

City wants low-cost disposal; the problem is how to pay for it

Posted: Sunday, April 27, 2003

Thom Buzard, a maintenance department employee at Wright Services, has been doing battle with Juneau's junk cars. And he isn't winning.

"I am dealing with a car right now that is literally teetering on the edge of a rock in a very crowded trailer park," he said last week. "To look at it, you know it's a junk car. The engine and transmission are missing, the tires are gone, the glass has been broken and the kids were playing around it. It's basically an environmental hazard."

Neighbors had been calling Buzard's company daily about the car, which since has been removed. The owner disappeared, leaving the unsightly wreck at Glacier View trailer park near Stephen Richards Memorial Drive, Buzard said.

"The people in the trailer space had possession of the car and they moved in the middle in the night," he said. "They came back over the next three nights and stripped the car out. This is what we're dealing with. We're left holding the bag."

This junker - although a neighborhood menace - is not unusual in Juneau. Ugly, rusting wrecks can be found all over town, much to the dismay of private-property owners and the city. City officials think a low-cost, ongoing disposal program could help, and have added $200,000 in funding to next year's draft budget. The final decision will rest with the Juneau Assembly.

The city estimates Juneau residents legally dispose of about 250 junk cars each year. The Juneau Police Department picks up another 200 to 300 cars that are illegally left in the public right of way, city environmental zoning officer Dan Garcia said.

"The city picks them up off the side of the road, public land, the end of cul-de-sacs, you name it - any public street, especially those out of the way," he said. "The rest just get tucked away."

Waste Management District Manager Mike Allison said the number of junkers coming into the landfill fluctuates.

"We shipped out about 400 in February," he said.

A ticket for an illegal abandoned or junk car in Juneau is $295, plus a $10 surcharge, said Sgt. Troy Wilson of the police department's community services unit. From pink warning tag to impound, an officer can spend eight to 10 hours dealing with one car, he said.

"It's fairly extensive, it really is," he said. "A lot of times we're not able to track down or get word of the last owner, or they've left town. It makes it real difficult."

While the police department's budget set aside $66,000 for junk cars this year, actual expenditures are expected to reach $100,000, Deputy City Manager Donna Pierce said. Ideally, the city wants to create an disincentive for people to abandon cars, she said.

"It's an issue we want to work on," she told the Assembly earlier this month. "We're just throwing money at it (now) instead of trying to solve the problem."

Under the new junk car disposal program, the city would hire contractors to tow, clean and dispose of junk cars at a nominal cost to the owner, said city Public Works Director Joe Buck. The funding in next year's budget is for a pilot program, he said.

"If someone calls to get rid of a car, a company under contract would tow the car back to a garage and the garage would clean the car," he said. "The garage would dispose of the garbage, containerize the batteries for recycling, collect the fluids and gas, dispose of the tires and take the hazardous waste to the city's facility. ... We'd then tow it to a storage site, where it would be crushed and stored until there are enough to ship down to the (Lower 48) for recycling."

If it is funded by the Assembly, the program could start in September and handle 600 to 650 cars a year. The city hasn't figured out what car owners would have to pay, Buck said.

"It may be if the vehicle needs to be towed it would be $100, otherwise it would be $50," Buck said. "It's something we need to develop a little further."

Funding for the program would come from the city's general fund, which is supported by local property and sales taxes. Juneau Assembly members in November turned down a proposal to tack a $13 annual fee onto vehicle registration through the state Division of Motor Vehicles to pay for handling junk cars.

Pierce said adding a charge for junk cars to the city's hazardous waste fee is another possibility.

"The reason why we didn't do that is because we're doing a utility rate study," she said. "We wanted to wait until it's decided what the utility rates will be in the future. It's definitely an option."

The city has tried limited disposal programs before, running six, one-day Junk Car Roundups in 2001. People could bring their cars in for a $50 to $150 fee, and the effort netted 774 junkers, Garcia said. Without such a program, it can cost upwards of $350 to get rid of a junk car, including towing, cleanup and disposal.

The trouble is some people would rather buy another cheap car than pay the disposal cost, said Buzard, of Wright Services.

"If it's a $300 or $500 car, it's cheaper to leave it on the side of the road," he said.

Buck said an ongoing disposal program won't eliminate Juneau's abandoned car problem, but could help.

"The benefit is you don't have junk cars lying all over town," he said. "It's an extension of household hazardous waste program to get people not to abandon old cars. ... (A junk car is) a blight on the community and environmentally not a sound thing to do. It leaks out into groundwater, and kids play in the things."

Buzard, who favors a motor vehicle registration fee to pay for junk car disposal, doesn't see the problem going away. His company is dealing with another five abandoned cars in another trailer park in town, he said.

"If we can narrow it down to an individual owner we do have the option of going after them in court, but more often than not, they've left the state and can't be served," he said. "Basically what it boils down to is it's a four-wheeled nuisance that could easily be taken care of with another method."

Joanna Markell can be reached at joannam@juneauempire.com.

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