Her car was impounded, then impossible to find

The city of Minneapolis told Michelle Goulart to stop asking about her car at the impound lot. By the time it was found, she had already bought a new one.

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A photo of Michelle Goulart's car, taken when she discovered it frozen in the ice and snow, and unsuccessfully tried to jump-start it.

Photo: Michelle Goulart

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Michelle Goulart figured her car was gone for good. The 2000 Dodge Neon disappeared from a Dinkytown street in August after she unwittingly left it in a no-parking zone. A month later, the Minneapolis impound lot told her to stop asking about the car. The staff promised to call her if it ever showed up.

Discouraged, Goulart went shopping for a replacement. She had been driving it for four months when the impound lot finally called. Goulart's car had been sitting in the impound lot the whole time, but nobody noticed it because the paperwork had been misplaced. The mistake was discovered in January, when city workers found the car during their regular six-month inventory.

Because of Goulart's lost Neon, Minneapolis now checks its impound lot inventory every one to two months, said Jon Wertjes, the city's director of parking and traffic services. But he blames the error on ABM Security Services, a contractor that controls access to the city's lot. The company is negotiating with Goulart over her compensation claim.

"The company agreed to take responsibility for the incident,'' Wertjes said.

Goulart, 31, a native of Brazil and graduate student at the University of Minnesota, figures the ordeal has cost her about $2,000. She's perturbed by the city's finger-pointing.

"What most upsets me, is that they say, we don't have any responsibility," Goulart said. "I think they should say, OK, it was a mistake, it wasn't [totally] our ... mistake, but we were part of that, because it was our lot."

For many motorists, the impound lot at 51 Colfax Av. N. is one of the city's most despised places. The season's first big snowfall always draws an angry crowd of people with excuses about why they couldn't get their vehicles out of the plows' way.

Yet since its creation in the early 1980s, the impound lot has dented its own reputation. In 1987, police brought a stolen car to the lot, only to lose it to a thief -- the same guy who stole it the first time. In 1990, someone made off with a pickup truck that had been recovered from an earlier theft. In 1994, after a four-month undercover police investigation, a lot employee was charged with stealing two rifles and a cell phone from impounded cars.

In 2007, the city conducted an internal audit after a spate of claims by people who lost property in impounded vehicles. The report concluded that the fence was inadequate, employees didn't know how to use security cameras, and procedures for controlling access to the lot were "suspect."

To improve security at the impound lot and three other locations, the City Council hired Houston-based ABM Security Services in 2008 for $1.3 million per year.

Goulart's experience, however, raises questions about what the city is getting for its money.

It was a Saturday morning last summer when she parked the Neon on Fulton Street, near the laboratory where she studies cancer cells. She didn't notice the temporary "no parking" signs, which were out for a university event, until she came back 12 hours later looking for her car.

Angry with herself, Goulart walked 2 miles home to St. Paul. The next day, a friend gave her a ride to the impound lot. But after checking the computer, a worker said the car wasn't there. Tired of using her bike and begging rides from friends, Goulart borrowed money from her mother to buy another car.

To her disbelief, Goulart got a call from the impound lot in January asking when she was coming down to pick up the Neon. She expected to find a car trashed by thieves, not a frozen lump forgotten by the city. The tires were trapped in ice, the bumper had a new hole and the license plate was lying on the ground. Cans of pop in the trunk had exploded. The battery was ruined and wouldn't jump-start. She had the car towed to a repair shop and sold it.

The city waived the towing fee and storage charges, which would have amounted to nearly $3,000 -- more than the car was worth. The missing paperwork turned up Feb. 12.

"This is the first time this has happened,'' ABM spokesman Tony Mitchell said.

Though the impound lot can have as many as 1,000 vehicles at any given time, Wertjes said city officials have no record of any other incident where an impounded vehicle was kept from its owner "for a prolonged period of time" because the city didn't know it was there.

  • IMPOUND LOT INS-AND-OUTS

    If your vehicle goes missing, check the Minneapolis lot's inventory online at bit.ly/bwtORR or call 612-673-5777. If it isn't in the lot, the city can help you file a stolen-vehicle report. The city's policy is to mail an owner a notice within three days of receiving a vehicle.

    If you have unpaid tickets or the vehicle was in an accident or used in a crime, there may be a hold on its release.

    If the vehicle is subject to repossession, it may be taken from the lot unless you arrive first and pay the fees.

    After 15 days, it may be sold at auction. If you'd rather abandon it, you may pay the fees and turn over ownership to the city.

    A standard tow charge is $138 and daily storage is $18.

    JANE FRIEDMANN
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