MILWAUKEE — Abandoned cars are more than just an eyesore, they can leak chemicals in the ground, scatter broken glass and attract rats and raccoons.
During an I-Team investigation into illegal dumping, we noticed what seemed like dozens of abandoned cars. But we found out it's more complicated than investigating a dumpsite.
"They take up valuable parking spaces, they're an eyesore according to some people," said Richard Dollhopf, Parking Enforcement Manager for the Department of Public Works. "They also pose hazards, some abandoned cars have broken windows, flat tires. Kids tend to play around those vehicles."
Public Works and the Department of Neighborhood Services tackle the city's abandoned cars.
"It's not as big of an issue as it used to be, but it is still continuing issue within the city of Milwaukee," said Kristen Reed, Residential Code Enforcement Supervisor with DNS. "We want to just make sure that we're not having vehicles that are bringing neighborhoods down or creating safety or health issues within neighborhoods."
Enforcement in the city has declined over the last four years, especially in 2020. According to DNS data, in 2017 there were 1,635 abandoned car enforcement cases. In 2020 it dropped to 374.
Reed says the city changed the way it investigated cases in 2020 due to the pandemic, moving to a complaint-only model for much of the year.
Calls to the city were down last year as well. At its peak in 2017, the city received 2,783 calls regarding vehicle complaints. Last year, they received 1,190 vehicle complaint calls.
"Unless it was a very egregious situation, then we would go out and we were self-initiating. But otherwise, we pretty much went to complaint-based," Reed said.
City inspectors have to verify the car is in fact stolen. It's a process that can take time. DPW, which handles cars abandoned on city streets, sometimes finds the car is stolen.
"We often find vehicles that we're addressing as parking complaints are stolen," Dollhopf said. "Those vehicles are reported back to the Milwaukee Police Department. The police department responds and recovers those vehicles."
DNS handles abandoned cars on private lots, where it can be even more difficult to prove a car is abandoned.
"We don't want to take away people's personal property that they are actively using or things like that, so we will work with them the best that we can, but we still have to keep the neighborhood safe, so it is a little bit, as you said, a gray area, and a fine line that we dance," Reed said.
Abandoned cars can have an impact on the surrounding environment, and expose people to toxic chemicals and dangerous metals.
A report published by the Environmental Protection Agency says as cars deteriorate when left out in the elements, they can introduce mercury, lead, battery acid and asbestos into the nearby environment.
"Let's say it's abandoned next to a storm drain or next to a river. There could be some runoff issues that you know introduced into the water body," said Issac Ross, Spill Team Leader for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
And the environmental impact gets worse the longer a car sits in one spot and deteriorates. Meaning quick reporting and enforcement is essential.
Dollhopf adds compliance with city laws on the driver's part can go a long way to preventing abandoned vehicles or having your car towed in general.
"Look at signs before you park. If you have open citations, pay those properly, keep your car registered, move your car every 24-48 hours as required by ordinance and if you're parking on private property, make sure you have permission to park there by the owner," he said.
City inspectors are mostly back to normal in 2021 as far as abandoned car enforcement. But complaints still drive much of that enforcement.
If you need to report a nuisance or abandoned car, call 286-CITY.