After he smashed his car into a telephone pole in Sturbridge four years ago, Nick Attella walked away, figuring that the tow company would junk the car and take the towing fee out of the proceeds.
He didn’t give it another thought until it came time to renew his license recently and he was told he couldn’t. The Town of Sturbridge had cited him for abandonment of his 1999 Saab. He quickly agreed to pay a fine of $250.
But that wasn’t good enough: Town officials told him he owed more than $7,000 to the towing contractor who had stored his ruined car — and who also happens to be a town selectman.
“I don’t have that kind of money,” Attella told me last week. “So I no longer have a driver’s license. It doesn’t seem fair to me, and I don’t know where to go to complain about it.”
The state abandoned vehicle law contains a mechanism to prevent the kind of situation that ensnared Attella. It says that whenever a municipality deems the value of a stored vehicle to be less than the charges for towing and storing it for three days, the vehicle must be destroyed, thereby ending storage charges.
What Attella also didn’t know is that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts acts as the collection agency for towing contractors, courtesy of an obscure state law intended primarily to keep abandoned vehicles from blighting residential neighborhoods.
The law gives cities and towns the authority to fine the owners of abandoned vehicles and hold them responsible for the cost of towing and storing them.
To put teeth into what is a civil, rather than criminal, sanction, the law gives municipalities the right to forward to the Registry of Motor Vehicles the names of scofflaws.
As Attella, 37, now knows, the state-approved storage rate of $35 a day quickly adds up. It’s slightly more than $1,000 a month, even for a mangled heap of junk like his car.
Attella told me that at the time of the crash he had been addicted to opioid painkillers for more than a decade. Attella has also struggled with a painful arthritic condition (Reiter’s syndrome) and 24-hour care of his mother, who is stricken with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease).
I took a look at Attella’s driving record. It begins with him being bagged for speeding at age 16 (the first of 10 speeding citations) and goes on for seven pages. He’s been deemed at fault for half a dozen accidents and charged once with drunken driving.
And I’m defending him? No. I’m here to shine some light on the actions — and costly inactions — of Sturbridge town officials. I don’t know how many people get caught in this Bermuda triangle of abandoned vehicles, but maybe the Legislature wants to take a crack at tightening the law.
Attella plowed into the pole on March 9, 2014. He was not charged or cited. But it was at about this time that he went into inpatient treatment for addiction, followed by years of living in sober halfway houses. He told me he’s been clean and sober for more than three years.
Attella says he has a vague memory of talking by phone with Craig Moran, owner of Sturbridge Service Center, which is one of the town’s two towing contractors, though the town has no actual written contract with the service center. (Moran was elected to the Board of Selectmen in 2015 and is running for reelection next month.)
Moran, in his recollection of that telephone call, said that he told Attella he would accept $115 to cover the cost of the tow and disposal of the wreck and that he warned Attella his offer was good for one week only. He said Attella then disappeared for 2½ years.
Attella told me he assumed Moran got something close to $100 by selling the crumpled Saab as junk. But he really never gave it a second thought, even after a few notices arrived at his mother’s house.
Moran graciously invited me into his office, but not without grumbling about Attella’s irresponsibility (check) and Attella’s enlistment of me to do his dirty work (I guess so). The paperwork shows the tow and other fees came to $182.35. Three days of storage came to $105, for a total $287.35, which was surely more than the wreck was worth.
But rather than have the car destroyed, Moran dithered. He told me he followed the town procedure for handling these kinds of cases. First, he looked up the book value of a vehicle ($1,640, in excellent condition, which the Saab most definitely was not). Then he waited for the tow-plus-storages charges on the vehicle to surpass its book value. Only then did he take steps to get rid of the vehicle.
I think that’s a generous interpretation, one that allows Moran to run up storage charges on a junker like Attella’s. Be that as it may, by my calculation the charges on Attella’s vehicle surpassed its book value on April 19, 2014. Moran waited until May 22 to notify the town that Attella’s car was ripe for the crusher. By then, Attella was on the hook to Moran for about $2,770 in charges.
Once it received Moran’s notice that he was going to destroy the car, the town should have quickly scheduled a hearing. It didn’t need Attella to attend.
But the hearing wasn’t scheduled until Sept. 17, 2014, almost four months later. That delay heaped $4,165 more in storage charges on Attella’s bill.
I asked Sturbridge Town Administrator Leon Gaumond why the town delayed the hearing. He said the town had suspended such hearings for the summer but had no explanation for why Attella was still held responsible for the charges. (Gaumond was not administrator in 2014.)
I think the town acted incredibly callously toward Attella and should deduct at least $4,000 from his bill — the portion of the storage charges run up as the town dragged its feet.Sean P. Murphy can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.