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Volunteer police officer Norm Guevin prepares an abandoned vehicle violation sticker

Volunteer police officer Norm Guevin prepares an abandoned vehicle violation sticker in this IR file photo.

Helena Chief of Police Troy McGee and City Attorney Thomas Jodoin briefed city commissioners Thursday on circumstances surrounding complaints of abandoned vehicles, the procedure for which they said has “basically been the same” since 1975.

A vehicle is declared abandoned under the city code after three days without movement “on a city street, alley, roadway or public property.”

In an Oct. 4 memorandum to interim city manager Dennis Taylor, Jodoin and McGee said complaints of abandoned vehicles are increasing sharply. Conversation at Wednesday’s administrative meeting raised questions about how to implement a new policy and whether the goal of a revised procedure should be to increase available parking, rid neighborhoods of junked vehicles or make way for snowplows in the coming winter.

In their memo to Taylor, Jodoin and McGee laid out the current process for dealing with abandoned vehicle complaints:

  • An officer responds after police receive notice of an abandoned vehicle, then marks it and returns in 72 hours. If the vehicle remains in place, the officer leaves an orange sticker and citation on the vehicle requiring its removal. If the vehicle is still in place five days later, it is towed at the owner’s expense.

Jodoin and McGee stated in the memo that there are “hundreds, if not thousands” of abandoned vehicles within Helena city limits as currently defined by the city code. Even cars set aside for sale or parked long-term on Benton Avenue by Carroll College students can be deemed abandoned, they said.

The memo states 612 complaints of abandoned vehicles have been made this year through Sept. 4. Such a rate puts Helena police on track to receive 810 complaints by the end of 2018, up 14 percent from last year.

The memo notes that records kept between 2013 and 2017 are “incomplete due to lack of detail” kept by a part-time volunteer.

Jodoin and McGee presented three solutions to the commission in their memo: continue with current procedure, dedicate more personnel toward parking enforcement or use reserve officers and volunteers to handle complaints. They warned that hiring a full-time officer to respond to abandoned vehicle complaints requires the city to direct resources away from “other police responsibilities” or find further funding.

McGee suggested adding language to the city code requiring a vehicle to be moved a certain distance both in the memo and at Wednesday’s meeting. Under current language for abandoned cars, “if they’re moved an inch, they’re moved,” McGee said, adding that most complaints end with the owner moving their vehicle.

Despite 612 abandoned vehicle complaints made through Sept. 4, only 60 resulted in the vehicle being towed.

Jodoin said one conclusion he came to is to discontinue the “nomenclature” of abandoned vehicles and prosecute such cases as parking violations. Such a measure could be paired with a time policy similar to that of Missoula, where residents cannot park on a street for more than 120 consecutive hours. Jodoin is also studying how to deal with homeless or low-income residents living in parked cars on public property.

“The one that we’re currently dealing with,” Jodoin said in reference to someone living in a vehicle, “I can tell you as soon as we get him off of city property, he’s gonna be on the street.”

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Local and state government reporter

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