By Peter Marcus, DENVER DAILY NEWS
Uncertainty remains over how revenue collected from a controversial voter-approved city ordinance that requires police officers to impound the cars of unlicensed drivers will be spent to create additional impound space.
When Denver voters in 2008 approved Initiative 100, they also approved a $100 land acquisition fee intended to be used to purchase or lease additional impound space. Denver’s impound lot holds 2,082 vehicles. But the lot is often near capacity, and space has always been a factor for the Denver Sheriff’s Department, which maintains the lot.
Earlier this year, discussions were taking place over where to build a new impound lot. One proposal was to build the lot near the existing lot at 5160 York St. But neighbors of the Elyria Neighborhood complained and pointed out that a FasTracks station is planned for 48th and Brighton, which has the potential to transform the neighborhood through transit-oriented development.
Since then, discussions have fizzled, said Capt. Frank Gale, spokesman for the Denver Sheriff’s Department. Despite ongoing capacity problems and the continued collection of the $100 land acquisition fee from unlicensed drivers, Gale said the department does not have an immediate need to expand the lot.
“The way things are going right now there’s not an imminent need to expand, said Gale. “I-100 is law, it’s being enforced, vehicles are being impounded, and there’s no imminent need to create anymore expansion right now.”
Back in April, city officials were discussing overcapacity problems with the impound lot, pointing out that the city was having trouble selling abandoned cars from the impound lot. The city holds about two public auctions per month.
For reasons unknown to city officials, more vehicles are being left abandoned at the impound lot. They believe I-100 is a factor, but also point to reasons such as the down economy. Things got so bad last year that Sheriff’s officials asked that the Denver Police Department only send them vehicles that need to be impounded as evidence in felony crimes.
That resulted in a drop of total impoundments of 18,719 in 2008 to 14,785 in 2009, which equates to a loss in revenue for the city at a time when the mayor has had to manage several budget shortfalls. The city lost about $340,000 as a result of taking in less cars.
Budget officials have said that if the city were to build a new impound lot, the city would make an estimated $400,000 in additional revenue from increased impoundments.
Councilwoman Jeanne Faatz believes that a stalled proposal by Councilmen Paul Lopez and Doug Linkhart to repeal I-100 is affecting progress on building a new impound lot or expanding the existing lot.
“The sheriff’s department explained it has been put in a bind by the Lopez/Linkhart proposal to repeal Initiative 100,” Faatz recently wrote to a constituent. “The sheriff’s department needs to know whether to plan for the capacity continuation that I-100 would require, or plan for lesser needs. Projections could affect location.”
Linkhart told the Denver Daily News last week that the proposal to repeal the ordinance has stalled, but said he is still interested in moving it forward, possibly as a voter-referred ballot proposal. The deadline has passed for the proposal to make the November ballot.
“I do think that we should repeal 100,” he said. “There’s costs to the city, there’s costs to individuals, there are unintended consequences that people are dealing with.”
Linkhart said a friend of his recently had their car impounded because an unlicensed mechanic was driving the car. He said it was a very difficult process for his friend to claim the car from the impound lot.
Other controversial stories have raised questions over I-100. An Iraqi war veteran whose car was impounded in 2009 was forced to raise nearly $4,000 to cover bond and fees associated with driving with an expired Missouri driver’s license. Even though the Denver district attorney’s office dismissed the traffic charges, Furman’s car sat in the city’s impound lot because of the ordinance.
Jefferson County resident Daniel Hayes introduced the ordinance to voters in 2008 as a means to cut back on illegal immigration and accidents involving uninsured drivers. Because undocumented immigrants don’t likely have a valid driver’s license, he figured requiring police officers to impound the cars of unlicensed drivers would do the trick.
To release a car from the city’s vehicle impound lot, drivers must pay $2,500 bond, a land acquisition fee of $100, a processing fee of $30, a $120 tow fee and storage fees.
Hayes attempted to add teeth to the law in 2009 by asking voters to absolutely require police to impound the cars of unlicensed drivers. He said at the time that police officers were using their discretion and not impounding enough of the cars. That initiative failed.
Meanwhile, Lakewood city officials last month referred to voters a vehicle impound ballot initiative to the November ballot. The local police union there has opposed the measure, and the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police has opposed the measure. Lakewood Mayor Bob Murphy is opposed to the initiative as well.
Several business groups in Lakewood have also come out against the proposal, including the West Chamber of Commerce and the Alameda Gateway Community Association.
Coloradans for Safe Communities, a coalition of business leaders, community groups, public safety advocates and elected officials, has launched a campaign in opposition to the Lakewood ballot proposal.
“I don’t want my family and I getting stranded without our car just because I forgot my wallet, it’s not safe,” said Ken DeBey, a 45-year resident of Lakewood. “I care deeply about my community, and I am very concerned about the negative impacts this impound initiative could have on our city.”