by BRAD ROLLINS
The owner of San Marcos’ largest wrecker service says he has a legal right to charge market rates for forced tows from private property even if people don’t find his line of work particularly charming.
Tommy Saucedo, who owns Saucedo’s Wrecker Service, said the city’s maximum rate of $75 for non-consent tows gives the seven wrecker services that operate within the city the grounds they need for a lawsuit challenging the local price cap.
“Nobody in Texas regulates wreckers like the city of San Marcos. They are trying to regulate us out of business,” Saucedo said. “We could sue them and we know we could win, but we’re just going to give them time to see what they do.”
The Saucedo family dominates the local towing industry through control of both Saucedo’s, the largest wrecker company operating within the city, and Southwest Towing, the second largest. Tommy Saucedo’s brother runs Southwest Towing and the two companies have separate addresses — Saucedo’s is located at 211 W. Grove Street and Southwest at 211B W. Grove Street — but Tommy Saucedo acknowledges that the two are not exactly competitors.
“There’s enough money to be made for everyone,” Saucedo said.
Despite his competitive advantage, Saucedo said the family’s companies aren’t as profitable as they could be because the city keeps non-consent towing rates artificially low under pressure from residents.
Residents for years have complained bitterly about rigidly enforced towing in some areas of town, especially at businesses downtown and near Texas State University. Most recently, city council member suggested that they might lower the fee caps instead of raise them when they were asked to consider a rate hike, the first since 2008.
“We’re the cheapest in Texas. It’s wrong,” Saucedo said.
Wrecker companies want to raise non-consent tow fees from $75 to $150; police command staff put forward an increase to $125 instead, which was roundly rejected by the city council in April. The topic is scheduled for discussion again at some point this summer.
The Texas Occupational Code allows municipalities to set the maximum rate for non-consent tows, hauling off unauthorized vehicles from private property without the vehicle owner’s permission. The code, however, requires cities to set towing fee caps at “amounts that represent the fair value of the services of a towing company and are reasonably related to any financial or accounting information provided to the governing body.”
The San Marcos Mercury didn’t review towing regulations in all of Texas 1,215 incorporated cities. Due to changes in state law enacted by the Legislature in 2011, wrecker companies are no longer required to submit their non-consent tow fee schedule to the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation; there is, therefore, no single source for the data. Who knows, in other words, if Saucedo’s “cheapest in Texas” claim is even remotely accurate.
But for eight corridor cities for which comparative numbers were available, six of them allow wrecker services to charge non-consent towing fees substantially higher than the San Marcos maximum.
The exceptions: The city of Kyle limits wrecker companies to charging a flat $57.50 and $1 per mile for non-consent tows, which would come in under $75 in many cases. And the city of San Antonio caps the fee for non-consent tows at $85, just $10 more than San Marcos.
In the other cities — Austin, Buda, Lockhart, New Braunfels, Luling and Seguin — San Marcos’ $75 cap is well under what the others charge. The closest to San Marcos besides San Antonio is Lockhart, which caps non-consent tows at $100, 25 percent more than San Marcos.
Three of the comparison cities — New Braunfels, Luling and Seguin – don’t have a maximum non-consent fee on the books; in that case, state law sets the maximum at 150 percent of what the city allows wreckers to charge for “police-authorized tows.” In New Braunfels, therefore, wrecker companies can charge as much as $210 for a non-consent tow and, in Luling, they can charge $142.50. Seguin doesn’t regulate any pricing aspect of wrecker services.
In other regulated areas besides non-consent tows, however, San Marcos rates ranged from about the same to far more expensive than the comparison cities. For example, some cities set a maximum rate for “drop” and “show up” fees when a wrecker responds to a call of an unauthorized vehicle but its owner shows up before it is towed.
In San Marcos, wreckers can charge $50 for showing up to tow a vehicle and for cutting it loose if it’s already been hooked up a truck when its owner arrives. Lockhart, meanwhile, caps a show up fee at $20 and a drop fee at $40. Luling limits the show up fee to $26.
If San Marcos adopts the $185 fee for police-authorized and accident tows requested by tow companies, it will be the highest priced in that regard of all the comparison cities. Even at the current rate of $150, it is tied with the city of Austin for the most expensive area city to have a vehicle towed from an accident or arrest scene.