by BRAD ROLLINS
» Proposed tow fee schedule [pdf]
“It’s not a lot of work to back up your flatbed, put a car on it and leave. And I think the volume on these non-consent tows is probably adequate for them to cover their costs and make a living,” said council member Kim Porterfield, who told colleagues that she watches from her office window all day as wreckers steadily haul off cars from a strip mall across the street.
Council members Shane Scott and Ryan Thomason were so uninterested in the requested fee hikes, in fact, that they suggested lowering the caps, instead.
Scott said he would move to lower the charge for non-consent tows of illegally parked cars from $75 to $50 — lower than the rate 10 years ago — and prohibit tow companies from charging “show up” and “drop” fees for drivers who return to their vehicle just in the nick of time. Thomason chimed in, “I’m on board.”
Said Porterfield, “I’m satisified with the way it is. Let’s just go on our way.”
That’s the message Police Chief Howard E. Williams received and delivered to wrecker company owners. He said he thought the council’s initial reaction was so unmistakably unfriendly that the tow companies would back off their request for a while. The police department oversees the city’s wrecker company regulations, including the towing fee caps.
“It may be in their interest not to bring it up again because it sounds like [the council] may cut their fees instead of raise them,” Williams said last week. The fees are set “at the council’s pleasure and they don’t seem too interested in hearing it again anytime soon.”
It appears, however, that tow truck companies — who have successfully persuaded previous councils to see things their way — aren’t prepared to drop the request. Mayor Daniel Guerrero told the San Marcos Mercury this morning that the council will re-consider the companies’ fee cap increase request at an upcoming meeting, either on June 19 or July 17.
“The last time it came up, it was the end of a long meeting and it’s a very detailed ordinance. I think we’re going to give it another look,” Guerrero said.
The owner of Saucedo’s Wrecker Service and Southwest Towing — the city’s two largest wrecker outfits — did not return calls for comment this week and last.
Although state law regulates the storage and impound fees that wrecker companies can charge vehicle owners, the authority to regulate the fees companies charge for “non-consent,” “police-authorized” and “accident” tows lies with City Hall.
Local tow companies are asking the council to raise the maximum fee for “non-consent tows” — removing illegally parked vehicles from private property — from $75 to $125. In addition, they want to increase the charge for hauling off vehicles following accidents or arrests from $150 to $185.
When the council last considered fee increases in 2008, residents turned up at meetings to complain about what they called predatory and overly aggressive towing, especially in the downtown and Texas State University areas.
With its notoriously rigid no-tolerance parking policy, the Nelson Center — a strip retail mall between campus and downtown that Porterfield mentioned in her remarks — always figures prominently in the discussions. City records compiled at the time showed tows from the Nelson Center accounted for more than a tenth of all the non-consent tows in the city recorded during a 12-month period in 2007 and 2008.
But the center’s custodian was among the chorus of people who argued that wrecker companies get a bad rap for keeping private property clear of unwanted vehicles.
“The predatory towing you’re talking about isn’t predatory at all. I contract with [a tow truck company] simply so my merchants can stay in business,” the Nelson Center’s general manager told council members in 2008.
Even so, council members at the time adopted an ordinance on first reading that would have required tow companies be summoned by property owners for each illegally parked vehicle. But the rule — intended to prevent tow truck companies from camping outside privately-owned parking lots waiting for people to park improperly — was stripped from the ordinance under pressure from wrecker companies before it was even implemented.
Instead, the council passed an ordinance that raised fees across-the-board — the one still in effect now — and that requires the city council to review the fee schedule periodically.
Besides indications from Scott, Thomason and Porterfield that they are wary of increasing tow fees, council member John Thomaides said tow companies would have to justify to him why they need to increase the amounts they charge involuntary customers.
“I’ve been through these towing issues before and I’m not comfortable without an explanation on why,” Thomaides said. “We hear a lot about towing, chief, and you know it and everyone else here knows it. To change these [fees] in a vacuum without any explanation is not something I can do.”
Asked directly by Thomaides what he thought about the proposed fee increases, Williams singled out the companies’ request to hike non-consent tow fees from $75 to $125.
Said Williams, “I believe that is too much, personally. I would rather agree with Ms. Porterfield that these are not expensive or difficult tows. Usually they’re just sitting in a parking lot and it’s back up and go. I think $75 is probably more than adequate to cover their expenses.”