Thursday, June 11, 2009

Baltimore (MD) Councilman Blasts Tow Companies Over Rates

Here's the story from the Investigative Voice:
By Stephen Janis

A million dollar industry that brings “misery” to the people of Baltimore was the topic of a contentious City Council hearing this week to vet several new laws that would reduce private towing fees charged to motorists.

Citing the city’s high private towing fees – the most expensive in the state - Councilman Robert Curran (D-3) blasted tow company executives and Department of Transportation officials for not doing enough to reduce the costs for drivers.

“Public perception is this is somewhat of a racket,” Curran said at the hearing on two separate towing bills. “You can’t turn a blind eye to this.”

“Forty thousand cars a year are towed in the city,” Curran said. “That’s 12 million dollars a year of misery.”

Curran, who is pushing two bills – one that would reduce the maximum amount trespass tow trucks could charge and the other that would reduce the cost of private tows to the city’s impound lot – was combative with city officials, asking them to back both bills.

But Curran also used the hearing to air his concern that private tow companies and the Department of Transportation were too cozy.

Recounting the day he followed a tow truck and a parking enforcement officer on a circuitous route of several miles around the city as the duo issued citations and then towed vehicles, the councilman questioned if the DOT had investigated the incident.

“It infuriates me,” Curran said of the apparent collaboration between private tow companies and city enforcement agents, which city law prohibits.

“Is there any mechanism for folks on your staff to investigate this?”Curran asked Alfred Foxx, who admitted that his agency was more reactive than proactive when it comes to employee misconduct.

But Foxx said that as long as the enforcement agent was not communicating with the Auto Barn tow truck diver, the pair’s actions were consistent with city policy.

Still, Foxx admitted his agency was not proactively policing DOT employees.

“Most of our investigations are complaint driven,” Foxx said.

Throughout the hearing, City Councilwoman Rikki Spector appeared to be squarely on the side of tow companies.

Spector took exception to Curran’s proposal to create a uniform fee system for so-called trespass towing, in which vehicles are removed from private property. She noted that charges for private tows vary widely.

“Is a cop of coffee at McDonald’s the same price as Starbucks?” Spector asked sarcastically. She also peppered city officials with questions about the feasibility of the DOT doing the work of private tow trucks.

“How much would it cost for the city trucks to do this?” Spector asked Foxx, who said that private tow companies offered flexible fleets that could expand or contract depending on economic conditions.

Tow company owners also defended steep fees, citing city requirements that private lots be open 24 hours as well as the demands of servicing a large city.

“We try our best as trespass towers to enforce good habits,” said Greenwood Towing chief Burt Greenwood Jr.

“Sometimes when I tell people what I do, they say ‘How can you do that?' ” he said. “But I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished."

Still, Curran said he would seek support to reduce the maximum trespass towing fee to $385.

“This is really a tragedy,” he said.
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