St. Paul comes clean on towed-car cash: Owners due refunds will be told

  • Article by: MATT MCKINNEY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 18, 2011 - 11:14 PM

The city, which hung onto profits from impounded cars it sold, will notify owners entitled to the money.

The city of St. Paul will make it easier for the owners of impounded vehicles to understand their rights, including their right to a refund if their car or truck is sold at auction and earns a profit, said city officials.

The change comes after the Star Tribune reported Dec. 11 that nearly a quarter-million dollars in auction proceeds should have gone to vehicle owners this year but instead stayed with the city. State law and St. Paul city ordinance require that any auction proceeds left over after paying for the vehicle's tow, storage cost and other fees should be held for 90 days so that owners can claim the money.

No one had stepped forward this year to claim any money before the Star Tribune first reported on the issue, most likely because the city letter sent to owners of impounded vehicles does not specifically mention the possibility of a refund.

A revised letter should be completed next week, according to a spokesperson from Mayor Chris Coleman's office. Exactly what those revisions will be wasn't clear, but a draft letter discussed earlier this week by St. Paul Assistant Police Chief Kathleen Wuorinen included a sentence specifically mentioning the refund as well as the full text of a city ordinance and five state laws governing impound lots, towing and vehicle auctions that previously only were cited in the letter. A "frequently asked questions" sheet about the impound lot also might be included, said police spokesman Howie Padilla.

Last month, the city of Minneapolis announced it would change its notification policy after the Star Tribune reported that it, too, was keeping virtually all the money that could have been claimed by vehicle owners.

The St. Paul city impound lot sold 1,056 vehicles for a profit over the past three years, clearing just more than $500,000, city records show. A small number of those vehicles may have been retired city vehicles, reducing the total payout that could have gone to private vehicle owners, but it's not known how many because vehicle ownership information wasn't provided in the St. Paul Police Department data supplied to the Star Tribune.

A St. Paul city budget document said the auction proceeds were retained for city purposes, but a spokesperson for Coleman said the mayor supports changes to city practices that are likely to result in some proceeds being returned to vehicle owners.

The office issued a statement: "The mayor's office has worked in consultation with the St. Paul Police Department and supports the chief's efforts to add clarifying language to the statutory language that is already included in the notification letter."

City Council Member Dave Thune said last week that he planned to ask the Police Department to clarify its notification letter so people due refunds would be told about it.

"We're not out to rip people's lungs out," said Thune, who represents Ward 2.

The assistant chief said last Tuesday that a draft of the new notification letter had landed on her desk the day before, but that the changes weren't final. On Friday, a spokesperson from the mayor's office confirmed that changes of some kind would be made to the city's notification letter to make the process more understandable.

Wuorinen, who previously said she was "very comfortable with the procedures and policies we have in place," denied that the changes had anything to do with the Star Tribune report. The impound lot staff is always looking for ways to improve, she said.

Matt McKinney • 612-217-1747

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