Vehicle abatement enforcer added to RMA payroll

By C.J. Barbre

Editor's note: This is part of a continuing series on cleaning up Tulare County.

The property on Spruce Road north of Lindsay had three large dogs, two fenced and one chained, but intimidating none the less. From the street it was difficult to see exactly how many vehicles were scattered around the place.

Esteban Benavides had his work cut out for him. The county's first vehicle abatement-only code compliance enforcer remained soft-spoken (in both English and Spanish) as the dogs barked and an older man in work pants and an undershirt came out of the house and down the steps asking in Spanish what was going on. Up on the porch stood the wife and a passel of children.

Down the wood steps came what appeared to be an adult daughter, demanding in English to know who had reported them. "Why would it bother anybody if it's in our own yard?" she wanted to know, adding that it was probably the county messing them over.

"Reports are kept anonymous and the county follows state law," Benavides responded, unruffled. He explained that any vehicles that were not operational had to either be removed from the property or stored in an enclosed structure.

"You mean I can buy a car cover and that's it?" the young woman wanted to know.

"No, it has to be enclosed," Benavides repeated.

They claimed all of the 11 vehicles ran, except for the Mustang which had clearly been in a wreck. "And I called the woman last month, but nobody has come to pick it up," she said, claiming it was remaining there for insurance claim purposes. One by one, Benavides photographed the various vehicles.

The man said one of the vehicles only needed to be smogged which was evident from Benavides' answer, "It has to be in an enclosed structure and it would cost more for a permit to build that than to smog the car if that is the only problem."

At the back of the property a pickup truck that clearly had not been moved in a long time was acting as a dumpster. It was packed to the gunnels with bags of trash. Most of the vehicles did not have current tags. There was a van, a moving truck, three sedans, a station wagon, even an antique 1930s coupe that had been parked under a pine tree so long that the tree draped over it almost to the ground and pigeons flew out of the branches when one approached.

In all, nine of the vehicles were not street legal. Benavides said he would be sending a notice and check back in a couple of weeks. If by then they had gotten rid of one or two of the cars it would indicate to him that they were trying and no fines would be incurred. But they would need to continue to work toward a solution of either getting rid of the cars or getting them within an enclosed structure per state law and county ordinance or they would be fined.

Benavides, 28, showed a masterful display of people skills, taking care of business and staying cool and collected in the 105 degree heat when tempers tend to frazzle and things could get volatile. The married father of 1.5 children said he previously worked for the county as a "self sufficiency counselor." He said he helped administer the "cash program," including seeing that people in need got food stamps, medical services and even cash.

As to being a vehicle abatement code enforcer, with just one week on the job, Benavides said, "It's kind of a slow moving process, because there really wasn't anyone dedicated to this before me. That's where I'm at right now, trying to put things together and pickup the backlog."

But he has jumped to it. In his first week, he attended a town meeting in Teveston, a small community near Pixley on Highway 99. "They just kind of expressed a need for cleanup over there as far as code enforcement." Benavides agreed that towns on the 99 corridor tend to have the highest rate of vehicle abatement problems simply because of their proximity to a major thoroughfare.

But obviously there is no scarcity of abandoned, wrecked, dismantled or inoperative vehicles or parts thereof all around the county. And whether on public or private property, they are considered public nuisances.

The Board of Supervisors has found that such vehicles create a condition tending to reduce the value of private property, to promote blight and deterioration, to invite plundering, to create fire hazards, to constitute an attractive nuisance creating a hazard to the health and safety of minors, to create a harborage for rodents and insects and to be injurious to the health, safety and general welfare.

Benavides said it was real simple, in fact the shortest chapter in the county ordinance book. "The ordinance states you can't store a vehicle outside of an enclosed structure." Resource Management Agency Code Enforcement Officer Supervisor Lissa Davis said earlier that RMA code enforcement is reactive. They only respond to public complaints about problems. It is necessary for someone to call them about blighted property for a code enforcement person to be sent out to have a look. Their number is 733-6291.

"We take the complaint and go out and see if it's an actual violation. If it is, we go ahead and send a notice to abate." Benavides said the party then has 10 days from the first notice to take care of the problem. "Then we start the procedure to have it towed. It gets towed by a licensed wrecking yard and gets crushed. If they take care of it right away, all they have to do is pay fees. If we do it, they have to pay a towing fine and administrative fees." That's if the vehicle is on private property.

If it's on the public right-of-way which is to say by the side of the road, California Highway Patrol Office Federico Martinez said CHP has responsibility for removal of a vehicle. The number for CHP is 734-6767. He said on county byways, there has to be some indication the vehicle has been abandoned, things like missing wheels or engine components or cobwebs underneath. Then they can order it be towed immediately. If there is no indication it has been abandoned, the vehicle is tagged and there is a 72-hour wait before a tow truck is called. "If they breakdown on the freeway like State Route 198 or Highway 99, they have four hours to get the vehicle off the freeway," Martinez said. If not, CHP calls a towing company. He said the county is divided into six districts and has a list of about 30 tow companies that they use, depending on the area in which the vehicle is located.

"We rotate the different tow companies. We are the ones who are actually storing it. Tow companies can't do anything without our authority. We will say we're storing an abandoned vehicle. If the owner comes forward they have to deal with the towing company and pay towing and storage fees.

Pro-Tow, with wrecking yards in Farmersville and Visalia, said their contracted price with CHP is $158 per hour for towing with a one-hour minimum and storage is $32 per day. The person who answered the phone was willing to chat, but chose to remain anonymous. "I don't want to get into trouble for nothin'," he said. He said the state of California says the registered owner is responsible for any fees encumbered. "But are you going to spend the time to take a day off of work and go to court? So you're going to eat it and scrap the vehicle." He said tow companies have to keep the vehicles a minimum of 72 hours before they can put a lien on the vehicle. Generally they just end up selling them for scrap. He couldn't say what the price per ton was at this time. He said repairing the car was not cost efficient. "Generally, if somebody has abandoned a car, it ain't even worth it to them to repair it and they own it." He said the payoff for them was having a contract with CHP for towing vehicles at accident scenes.

He said abatement was different, that the county paid tow companies to pick up vehicles which is then charged to the property owner. And Benavides is hot on that trail. He had been in Ivanhoe and Woodlake this very morning citing illegal vehicles and would be in Strathmore and Porterville the following day.

We noticed a few weeks after the on-site inspection with Benavides that at least half of the vehicles had been removed from the property on Spruce Road.

Cash for Clunkers

On the Environmental Protection Agency website for transportation control measures regarding accelerated vehicle retirement, there is a lot of information about "cash for clunkers" scrapage programs, where a bounty is paid per scrapped vehicle. Their concern is with air quality, also one of Tulare County's top concerns. Some cities like Lindsay have creatively used grants to fund clean air projects for purchasing low emission vehicles and even building sidewalks, with the argument that they cut down on dust. It seems such grants could also be used for incentives in vehicle abatement.

Other possible solutions might be found at: www.junkmycar.com and www.donate-a-car.org.

County landfills charge $25 per vehicle to dump old cars. Plus, assuming it is not running, there is the cost of getting a vehicle to the dump. If in fact, the county simply cover over old vehicles, it seems they are missing a bet.

Somebody might want to check out the World Scrap Metal Congress being held Dec. 6-8 in Shanghai, China at the Grand Hyatt (www.terrapinn.com/2005/wsm_cn/). It seems a lot of the world is desperate for scrap metal.

"China's demand for ferrous scrap imports is expected to jump 27% to 13 million tons in 2005. Total ferrous scrap demand in China is expected to grow slightly more than 10% and 20-25 % of China's scrap consumption would need to be met by imports through 2010"

- China Iron and Steel Association (CISA)

"U.S. products constitute only 4% of Hong Kong's total scrap metal imports. U.S. companies should take advantage of Hong Kong's expertise and connections to expand to China, which in 2003 overtook South Korea and Turkey to become the world's largest scrap steel importer. It is forecasted that there will be a scrap steel shortfall of 15 - 20 million tons in 2005."

- Hong Kong Metal Merchants Association

Considering our balance of trade, we really shouldn't be sending containers back to China empty.

"The cost of moving empty containers around the world has reached an estimated total of at least $5 billion per year. It is not unusual today for entire ships to be chartered to shift empties from surplus to demand locations."

- World Cargo News Online

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