St. Paul cashing in on impound lot auctions

  • Article by: MATT MCKINNEY and JANE FRIEDMANN , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: December 11, 2011 - 6:41 AM

City failed to notify owners of nearly $250,000 in refunds they were entitled to on vehicles sold this year.

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Kaye Roskaft of St. Paul had her 1998 Jeep towed from a St. Paul street near her home in 2007. It was later auctioned.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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The city of St. Paul has kept nearly a quarter-million dollars from impound lot auctions this year that should have gone to vehicle owners, city records show.

The city's practice of keeping all auction proceeds is outlined in Mayor Chris Coleman's 2010 annual financial report, despite a state law and a city ordinance that says a chunk of it belongs to the people who failed to pick up their towed cars within 15 days.

The amount from this year's auctions that could be claimed by vehicle owners stands at $237,462 and counting, according to city records. It's the largest haul in the past three years, a period during which the city generated some $515,497 in surplus auction proceeds.

It's possible that the money that could have been claimed by vehicle owners is slightly less than that total, because some of the auctioned vehicles were retired city vehicles. The data provided by police didn't break that out subtotal.

Asked last month how much money has been returned so far this year, a St. Paul police spokesman said zero.

The practice mirrors what's been happening at the Minneapolis impound lot, which as of last month had given a refund to only one car owner out of hundreds who were due one.

As in Minneapolis, the city of St. Paul doesn't tell people directly that they may qualify for a refund. After the Star Tribune reported on the issue last month, Minneapolis officials said they would begin notifying vehicle owners if they're due a refund.

The St. Paul Police Department, which runs the St. Paul impound lot, sends a certified letter to owners of impounded vehicles shortly after a tow. The letter includes numerical citations to one city ordinance and five state laws that govern the towing, impoundment and auction of vehicles. A person would have to look up the fifth state law cited and read that law's fourth paragraph before learning of the right to a refund.

Asked if that was sufficient notice, given that no one has claimed the money this year, St. Paul Assistant Police Chief Kathleen Wuorinen said yes.

"I'm very comfortable with the procedures and policies we have in place," she said Friday. "I can't speculate on why people wouldn't step forward and claim this money."

Coleman's 2010 financial report describes the policy of the impound lot: "Unclaimed vehicles are sold at public auction and proceeds retained."

A spokesman for Coleman said Friday "the mayor is in touch with the police department on their practices."

Profits unclaimed

About one vehicle auction in every seven in St. Paul generates a refund, according to city records reviewed by the Star Tribune. The records cover nearly three years of sales at the 830 Barge Channel Road impound lot, from Jan. 1, 2009, to Nov. 17.

During that time, 28,005 impounded vehicles were picked up by their owners, who paid $5.8 million in towing, storage and other fees. Yet some owners didn't show up within 15 days, giving the city the authority to auction the vehicle to the public.

Under state law and city ordinance, the city can keep enough money from the sale of each vehicle to cover the costs of handling it.

Since 2009, 7,035 vehicles have been auctioned at the impound lot.

Of those vehicles, 1,056 sold for prices higher than the city fees assessed against them. Those fees were typically $88 for towing, $15 a day for storage, and a $55 management fee, plus miscellaneous fees, according to city records.

For example, on April 7, the city auctioned a blue 2008 Lexus for $12,750. The city was owed $120.53 for towing the vehicle, $960 for just over two months of storage, plus a $55.08 administration fee and taxes. Total bill: $1,135.61. The surplus from the sale, the highest recorded in the past three years: $11,614.39.

A few months later, the city auctioned a green 2004 Jeep Liberty for $6,415.95. The owner owed $1,478.08 in towing, storage and administration fees, city records show. That left a $4,937.87 surplus.

Those two examples were among the top 10 sales at the impound lot in the past three years. Most sales generate much less, and the city usually takes a loss on the auctions.

Kaye Roskaft of St. Paul, who lost her 1999 Jeep Cherokee four years ago to the city's impound lot, said she wished she had known about the potential for a refund.

She had left the Jeep parked at the curb during a street sweeping, and had too little cash to get the vehicle back from the impound lot.

She chose instead to sell it to a friend, telling him they could go to the impound lot together, pick up the Jeep and transfer the title. She called the lot to ask how much time she had. She and the friend went on the last day the Jeep would be available. It was too late, she learned. The Jeep had been auctioned. She never got any money for it, and didn't know to ask.

Roskaft said she's still unhappy about losing the Jeep, which belonged to her mother.

"It was bad enough that it was towed. Then to sell it out from under me," she said in exasperation.

Matt McKinney • 612-217-1747

  • ST. PAUL TOWING

    Since Jan. 1, 2009:

    28,005 vehicles

    picked up at impound lot

    $5.8 million

    towing, storage and other fees paid by vehicle owners

    7,035 vehicles

    auctioned at impound lot

    1 in 7

    of those auctions generated a surplus, money that should go to vehicle owner

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