BILLINGS – There’s an epidemic apart from drugs or crime that’s keeping city officials busy trying to keep up.
And that's abandoned vehicles left on the streets of Billings.
Billings police say in 2020 they rounded up 1,912 junk vehicles that were hanging around on city streets for days or even weeks. And as many as 30 are reported on a weekly basis, with roughly half of those picked up each week to haul away, according to officials.
But keeping up with demand isn’t easy because those who come and tag the cars with the Billings Police Crime Prevention Center are volunteers.
On top of that, Sgt. Nathan West with the Billings Police Department says junk cars lead to more of a nuisance.
“The longer a vehicle sits, that's inoperable, the seals start to go bad, we start to lose transmission fluid, oil fluid, and oil that's spilling onto our streets,” said West.
And that’s not all, he says.
“I mean, that becomes an eyesore,” he said.
Accumulating abandoned vehicles can lead to an increase in crime, said West.
“Criminals are coming into the neighborhood and they see a vehicle with a broken window or maybe some graffiti on it (and think), well I have access to this vehicle. If I can break into this vehicle, maybe I can break into other vehicles, and if I can break into other vehicles and then I can break into homes,” he said.
So West encourages residents to always call the Crime Prevention Center with details about a junk car on a street.
“I would like to mitigate the problem,” he said. “And from my standpoint, right now from what I've seen, I think our best bet is public education.”
So what exactly happens when an abandoned vehicle is called in?
“We have volunteers that work for the Crime Prevention Center and they go out, they'll place this (orange) sticker on the vehicle. And this is the warning saying if your vehicle isn't moved within five days, it's abandoned. And if it's not gone in five days, we can tow it,” said West.
Each Wednesday area tow truck drivers round up the junk cars and take them to the Yellowstone County Junkyard, where Director Mike Schieno takes it from there.
We walked through the junkyard recently filled with some 300 vehicles.
“Our policy is that we hold these vehicles for at least 30 days,” he said. “Sometimes we hold them even longer if we think there's a chance somebody might recover and come and pick him up.”
Because if they don’t, there’s still work to be done to get completely rid of the junk car. The agency works with Pacific Steel to recycle the vehicles that don’t get a final claim of ownership from someone.
“The average is around $200 depending on the weight of the vehicle, could be up to $250, maybe a little more on a heavier truck,” he said.
After a career in law enforcement working as a Yellowstone County deputy, Schieno’s heard plenty of reasons why someone would just up and leave a vehicle on the side of the road.
“We hear a lot of stories in the junkyard,” he said. “They broke down, they quit driving, it was just left on the street for several months,” he said.
But when that happens, it can deteriorate the property values of the surrounding neighborhood, according to West.
“There's an old Chevy pickup,” said Schieno, pointing to a broke down truck in the junkyard. “You see it on the streets, the windows are broken out. It’s got graffiti and no motor. I mean if you drive around the city and the county, you see junk vehicles all over the place, so I do believe it's a problem.”
In the span of 4 years reports for junk cars increased over 16 percent in the city of Billings, except during 2020 and the pandemic when the numbers were down.
In 2016 there were some 2,232 abandoned vehicles reported to the city. Fast forward to 2019 when 2,593 of them were reported.
Montana was one of the leading states to enact junk vehicle legislation.
In many cities, the program is paid for from the tax every resident pays when licensing their automobile.
All money received from the sale of the junk vehicles from recycling or fees is then deposited into a state fund which is then used to collect, recycle and dispose of junk vehicles.
But there’s one thing West wants to put out to the public that he hopes will resonate with folks.
“If you don't call us, there's no way we can intervene and help that situation. So call us. We might not get to it in the amount of time that you would expect us to or want us to, but if you call and make a complaint, we will get to it,” he said.