A police officer's diligent,By Anthony Sommer
two-month effort to clear the paper
trail fails to fully solve
LIHUE -- The County Council fumes and the mayor keeps asking the state for more money.
But when it comes down to doing something about Kauai's junk car problem, Roy Abuan has been the man.
Or at least he has been for the past two months. Tuesday was his last day on the job and, as usual, he spent it shoveling through a mass of paperwork trying to track down owners of abandoned vehicles.
Tomorrow, Abuan, a nine-year veteran of the Kauai Police Department, returns to being a patrol officer. Since January he has been the department's entire junk car detail.
Here's how the war has been going, according to the man in the foxhole:
In February, police averaged towing just under three junk vehicles a day.
And on an average day, between four and five new junkers appeared along Kauai's roads.
"As soon as you clean up an area, new ones start appearing," Abuan said.
The abandoned vehicle problem started in 1996, when the state Department of Transportation shut down the island's only junkyard for failure to pay rent.
Since then, about 3,000 vehicles that no longer are worth fixing have been dumped all over the island. The county finally responded last year by starting work on a junkyard of its own, but it won't be fully operational until later this year.
Meanwhile, the county is paying a private company to drain all the fluids out of the junk cars the police have towed in. The company says it can handle 20 vehicles a day, but actually receives far fewer.
The drained vehicles are stored at the county's under-construction scrap yard in Puhi. Eventually the county will have a crusher and a private operator to ship the vehicle remains to Oahu, but right now the wrecks just pile up.
The county has budgeted $300,000 for junk car removal this year, and so far $170,000 has been spent.
Abuan flipped through the pages of a thick log book recording every junk car reported since 1996.
"It doesn't look like any cars were towed for at least a year before I took this job in January," he said.
Abuan wasn't exactly a volunteer. He was on limited duty, healing from an injury, when he was tagged for the job. "I think this job has accelerated his healing process considerably," said Police Chief George Freitas.
The junk cars have been a major annoyance to people on Kauai and an eyesore to tourists.
But the real embarrassment came a few weeks ago when the Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story on it. Then came an Associated Press story on the national wire. Then came a report from nationally syndicated radio commentator Paul Harvey. Then came a story aired by CNN and printed on the network's Web site.
Abuan said he has felt the tremors from every story. It's the sort of stuff that flows downhill very quickly.
"If it were up to me, I'd clean up every junk car on the island. But there is only so much money and this work is very time-consuming."
Abuan rarely even sees a junk car. The reports are made by officers in the field, usually those on the graveyard shift who have the most time on their hands.
Abuan's job has been to try to track down the owners through records. That has meant hours and days and weeks tapping at a computer keyboard.
"Most of the cars have been stripped. There are no ID numbers, there are no license plates. And when I do identify an owner, it's very often someone who has left the state," he said.
Abuan is pleased with the system he set up and that he's leaving behind. His boss, Lt. Larry Manuel, will assume the duties. But Abuan said his fear is that it always will follow him because he's become identified as the "junk car cop."
"I picture myself years from now with people coming up to me and complaining to me about the junk cars they've found," he said.
Police Chief George Freitas lists some of the problems of cleaning up abandoned cars, or "junkers":
Limited power: State law limits police jurisdiction to the right of way for public roads. On state highways, it's 10 feet beyond the pavement; on county roads, 6 feet. The police can do nothing about junkers on private land.
Private land: The vast majority of junk cars are on private land, and landowners are unwilling to pay to remove vehicles someone else left. A state law goes into effect July 1, 2000, allowing private landowners to recover the costs of removing vehicles from the last registered owners.
Owners: Vehicle owners frequently do not fill out a required state form when they sell a car and the vehicles aren't re-registered until the license tags expire. So if the county shows up with a towing bill, the registered owner can claim that the junk vehicle was sold to somebody else. Another law goes into effect on July 1, 2000, making the last registered owner liable for any costs.
Private property: The county has no blight ordinances forbidding property owners from having visible junk on their land. Fallow fields on sugar plantations have often become junk car parking lots.
Fearing lawsuits: Many landowners are willing to absorb the cost of removing the vehicles but fear possible lawsuits, County Attorney Hartwell Blake said.
Cheaper: The county scrap yard will take a junk car only if the owner pays a mechanic to drain the fluids, pays a tow truck operator to haul it to Puhi and delivers it on a workday, which often means losing a day of work. The average cost is upward of $200. In contrast, the fine for dumping a junk car on the roadway is only $150.
Derelict vs. abandoned vehicles: A "derelict vehicle" is one that lacks a major component, like an engine. Those get processed and sent to Puhi the fastest. But most junkers are "abandoned vehicles." A vehicle that is repairable is considered abandoned and must be held for a time to allow the owner to reclaim it.