The blue SUV had been parked in front of the Omaha Bike Project near 33rd and California Streets, with its windows down, for more than three months.
After multiple calls to the Mayor’s Hotline failed to yield results, Chris Foster, a member of the Gifford Park Neighborhood Association, said he and his neighbors considered pulling the SUV into the middle of the street and then calling 911.
“They’d have to deal with it then,” Foster said.
But it didn’t come to that. When Foster drove by the bike shop Sept. 4, the SUV was gone.
Each month, Omahans like Foster report a range of problems to the Mayor’s Hotline. Abandoned vehicles often are near the top of the list.
In August, 715 of 2,554 reports to the hotline concerned nuisance vehicles, including those abandoned on streets and private property, according to the Omaha World-Herald.
In 2019, the hotline received 4,366 reports of abandoned vehicles, making it the second-most-reported issue behind 40,669 pothole complaints, according to the Mayor’s Office.
Foster said the SUV was just one example of a nuisance vehicle in his neighborhood. He often gets calls from neighbors who have tried to have someone with the hotline or Omaha police do something about unlicensed or illegally parked vehicles.
“And then when nothing is done,” he said, “people start thinking about other ways to solve the problem.
“We shouldn’t be vigilantes about this, and we didn’t (move the SUV), but we thought about it and we talked about it.”
Abandoned vehicles have been a problem for years, said Omaha City Councilman Pete Festersen.
During the time Festersen spent as deputy chief of staff to Mayor Mike Fahey, 2001 to ’05, he said, abandoned cars were among the most common complaints to the hotline.
“In the last year or two, most major crime indicators have been trending down, with the exception of stolen vehicles,” Festersen said. “In conversations with the police, I don’t think they can attribute it to any one thing.”
Where the cars are left, he said, seems “fairly random.”
Anne Collett Cornell said a car seemed to appear out of nowhere in mid-July near her house in the Aksarben area.
“We don’t really know how it got there or why,” she said.
After it stayed in one spot for about a week, Collett Cornell called the Mayor’s Hotline.
Collett Cornell said she was told that because of COVID-19, the impound lot was out of room, so the car wouldn’t be towed right away.
She then contacted her City Council representative, Chris Jerram, and the car was soon towed away. It had been five weeks since the car appeared.
Just because someone calls the hotline about a car doesn’t automatically mean it will be towed. That’s in part because not all cars that are reported abandoned actually are.
Some vehicles are owned by people who left or parked them on the side of the road with the intention of returning to retrieve them.
A more accurate label for these vehicles is “dead storage,” said Lt. Charles Ott of the Police Department’s neighborhood services unit.
“Dead storage vehicles and abandoned vehicles are not always the same thing,” Ott said.
To Ott, “abandoned” means a person has left the vehicle somewhere with no intention of reclaiming it, often because the vehicle had been stolen.
A dead storage vehicle is a vehicle left unmoved on a public street by the owner for more than 48 hours, Ott said. Vehicles such as these aren’t towed until 48 hours after a yellow sticker is left on the vehicle to give notice to the owner that it could be declared dead storage and impounded.
Reports of such vehicles also aren’t always checked out right away. An abandoned vehicle call is considered a low priority by the Police Department. Most complaints about dead storage vehicles come in through the Mayor’s Hotline, not through 911 calls, Ott said.
When an officer does respond to an abandoned vehicle call, determining whether the vehicle has been stolen usually is the first step they take.
It’s a common problem. Between January and July of this year, 1,477 stolen vehicles were reported to Omaha police, according to Police Department statistics.
Ott said that if a vehicle has been reported and the owner can’t be contacted but the vehicle is legally parked and hasn’t been reported stolen, it usually will be left where it is. If there are indications that the vehicle could have been stolen but the theft has not yet been reported, the officer most likely will have the vehicle impounded if the owner can’t be found.
If the vehicle in question was not reported stolen, Ott said, the officer will attempt to contact the owner to ask if he or she knows the location of the vehicle or why it is at a particular location.
A car sitting on private property and not a city street is a bit more complicated to deal with, Ott said.
Vehicles can be towed only from city streets, not private property, unless a vehicle is determined to have been stolen or if property owners call about abandoned vehicles on their land.
An officer also can leave a “Notice of Nuisance” at the property and take enforcement action 10 days later with a search warrant, Ott said.
The vehicles that are towed away by the city end up in the Police Department’s Vehicle Impound Lot. They sit there for at least 30 days before they’re auctioned to the public.
Omaha Police Capt. Edward Reyes said people typically get their cars out of impound before the 30 days are up.
Though Foster and Collett Cornell were told by the Mayor’s Hotline that the lot was at capacity, Reyes said the lot may have been near capacity in March but was never full.
The public, cash-only auctions were paused in March due to COVID-19 and resumed June 27. They’re held on Saturdays, with dates determined by what inventory is available.
Vehicles incur storage fees the longer they’re left in impound.
Current impound lot charges include a $95 tow fee, $60 administration fee and $20 storage fee.
Typically, between 70 and 120 vehicles that range from functional to salvage are auctioned.
The auctioning of Omaha’s abandoned vehicles contributed more than $1.1 million to the city’s general fund in 2019, which goes to all city departments.
Overall, the Omaha Vehicle Impound Lot contributed $3,514,510 to the general fund in 2019, according to city revenue reports.
The impound lot’s website notes that keys to the vehicles that are auctioned are not guaranteed.
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