City struggles to keep up as junk cars continue piling up in Juneau

Juneau Police Department Deputy Chief David Campbell serves as the auctioneer at a police car auction in the city's Lemon Creek impound lot in November 2018.

Juneau Police Department Deputy Chief David Campbell serves as the auctioneer at a police car auction in the city’s Lemon Creek impound lot in November 2018. (Photo by Zoe Grueskin/KTOO)

Like many towns in Alaska, Juneau has no roads leading in or out. That presents a problem when it comes to getting rid of vehicles no one wants anymore.

It’s expensive to ship cars out, and the city’s impound lot is full, meaning more abandoned vehicles sit on the street than usual.

Now the city is looking for solutions to address the backup.

The impound lot in Lemon Creek has a capacity for about 100 cars, but it regularly holds closer to 180.

In 2018 alone, the city impounded 788 cars. According to Juneau Deputy Police Chief David Campbell, that’s more than 60 cars a month.

“So it doesn’t take much to have that be at absolute overcapacity,” Campbell said. “We’re constantly telling our officers and our (community service officers), ‘Hey we’re full, there’s no place to put them.’”

While about half were only held for a few days, the total number of impounds has risen over the last three years. That means Juneau Police Department staff have to dedicate more time to managing the lot and tracking down owners.

Normally, the police department holds two or three car auctions a year for unclaimed and forfeited vehicles to clear out the impound lot.

At an rainy outdoor auction last fall, several dozen people still showed up to bid. Campbell served as the auctioneer, shouting out prices as bidders raised their cards. It was a chance for Juneau residents to find a deal, even if the selection wasn’t exactly choice. Many cars had flat tires or smashed windows, but a few went for over $1,000.

A group of prospective car buyers take a look under the hood of a Subaru at an auction at the city's impound lot in Lemon Creek, November 2018.

A group of prospective car buyers take a look under the hood of a Subaru at an auction at the city’s impound lot in Lemon Creek, November 2018. (Photo by Zoe Grueskin/KTOO)

Erin Heywood was a regular at these auctions, scouting for spare parts for her family’s cars.

“That one’s all moldy, nasty inside. (I) don’t know if it runs. But if it’s got a good (transmission), then, you know, we’ll just snatch it out,” she said while waiting to claim her car.

The city moved several cars off the lot that day, but not enough. The cars have been stacking up much faster than they can sell them. There are state laws dictating when and how municipalities can recycle abandoned vehicles, adding to the backup.

Campbell said that’s why they’re trying a new strategy.

“It was like this constant losing battle. We weren’t able to get ahead of the curve,” he said. “So what we’ve moved to now is an online auction process.”

The police department has held four online auctions so far this spring, allowing people to bid on just a handful of vehicles at a time. It’s cheaper and less time-consuming than holding live auctions. The hope is that it will take up less time for staff and help clear the lot faster.

A damaged SUV sits in a lot during a Juneau Police Department auction for unclaimed and forfeited vehicles in November, 2018. (Photo by Zoe Grueskin/KTOO)

A damaged SUV sits in a lot during a Juneau Police Department auction for unclaimed and forfeited vehicles in November 2018. (Photo by Zoe Grueskin/KTOO)

According to police, they’ve sold 18 vehicles since March.

While that should help the police department manage impounded vehicles, it doesn’t address the larger problem of why so many abandoned vehicles and junk cars are piling up. The city already provides free junk car recycling for registered owners through Skookum Sales & Recycling. As long as a vehicle is not commercially owned, Juneau residents can drop the vehicle off for free.

Which begs the question: Why are people abandoning cars on the street and in parking lots around town?

“I’d be willing to bet that the people that are abandoning them aren’t the owners, because you have to be the owner to take it to recycling,” Campbell said.

Vehicle theft is on the rise in Juneau. According to police, the number of cases rose 38% from 2017 to 2018.

The city also struggles with how to address abandoned cars on private property. Police can’t impound them, but they can help property owners try to find the owner of the car.

Campbell said the city will continue looking for ways to streamline the disposal process for abandoned cars.

In the meantime, information about online auctions can be found on the Juneau Police Department’s Facebook page.

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