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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Proposed Towing Policy In Dallas

Here's the story from the Dallas Morning News:
Dallas County is moving forward with plans to contract with a company or companies willing to pay for the right to tow and store cars for the sheriff and five constables.

Currently, county law enforcement agencies use their own wrecker services and storage lots with separate policies and procedures.

County commissioners want to professionalize towing and vehicle-impound operations by implementing uniform procedures in written contracts, which are not currently used.

But coming up with a system for multiple agencies located across the county with different needs is proving to be a challenge. The county hopes to award contracts by the start of the next fiscal year in October.

The move was prompted by concerns about aggressive and unsupervised towing operations in two constable precincts

Constables Jaime Cortes and Derick Evans are towing and impounding thousands of vehicles every year – mostly in southern Dallas County – using primarily one company and with no record-keeping to indicate what ultimately happens to the vehicles.

The Sheriff's Department, which responds to freeway accidents across much of the county, has wanted contracts to govern the towing of vehicles. The department's traffic division has expanded in recent years to handle the workload.

'Not a simple thing'

County staff met with constables and sheriff's officials last week to discuss the issue. Everyone agrees that a uniform policy is needed, said Shannon Brown, assistant Commissioners Court administrator.

"It's not a simple thing. But there was no one who said, 'We're not doing it,' " she said.

Brown said the plan is to seek proposals from towing companies that are willing to pay the county for each vehicle impounded. State law allows police agencies to receive a fee for overseeing such operations.

County officials said contractors would be willing to pay the county up to $100 per vehicle. Towing for police agencies is a lucrative business because of the volume of cars involved and the fact that state law allows companies to charge motorists a towing fee as well as daily vehicle-storage fees.

Joann Messina, an owner of Southwest Auto Tow in Dallas, submitted a proposal last year that would guarantee the county $75,000 a month based on an estimate of 2,000 vehicles towed per month.

Messina said her company complies with legal reporting requirements and hires an auctioneer to dispose of abandoned vehicles.

"Their biggest problem now is they have no idea where these cars are going," she said about some county towing operations.

Commissioner Kenneth Mayfield said during a recent meeting that he wants to make sure the county's towing and storage companies are properly licensed and insured and that they follow the law.

"I'm not looking to make money," he said.

Piggyback with city?

Another option is to piggyback on city contracts that are already in place. The city of Dallas operates its own impound lot, but most other cities contract for the service, Brown said.

More than 9,800 vehicles were towed just by constables last year. But each agency has its own policies.

"As Dallas County has expanded efforts in traffic enforcement and freeway management, a need has developed to consolidate and standardize the process for towing and impounding vehicles," a county briefing report said.

That will ensure that people whose vehicles are towed and impounded will have a "predictable and fair experience with Dallas County," the report said.

Because the constable precincts are spread out across the county, staff is looking at a model in which the county is divided into zones that match precinct boundaries. Contracts then could be awarded to companies to handle towing in those zones, Brown said.

That would improve wrecker response times, which all law enforcement representatives agree is important, Brown said. The agencies, she said, have asked that a 15-minute response time be a requirement in any contract.

Brown said contracts have to address different needs. For example, the constables often seize items involved in legal disputes before the justice of the peace courts that need to be stored somewhere safe.

And investigators need a place to store vehicles and other property that are connected to crimes, Brown said.

Precinct 3 Constable Ben Adamcik said he would like to see contracts with several towing and storage companies to ensure quicker response times.

"Officers don't like to sit by the side of the road," he said. "I want somebody who is honest and has insurance, licenses and the equipment to handle the job."

Cortes and Evans both rely heavily on Dowdy Ferry Auto Services to tow and impound vehicles, but they've acknowledged they don't know what's happening to those vehicles.

State law requires that owners be told in writing where to go to recover their vehicles. If they don't, the vehicles are considered abandoned after a period of time and can be auctioned. But Dowdy Ferry, which is being investigated by state regulators, doesn't auction abandoned vehicles, according to the owner.

Cortes and Evans both say they are open to a county towing and storage contract. But they said they intend to keep using Dowdy Ferry unless it's found that the company has violated the law.

Evans said a state investigator advised him to ask Dowdy Ferry for some kind of documentation showing what's happening to impounded vehicles, which he said he will do.

• Firms would pay the county for the right to tow vehicles.

• The maximum response time would be 15 minutes.

• Firms awarded a contract would have exclusive towing rights to all calls from Dallas County within the county boundaries.

• Firms would pay a fee for each vehicle impounded at the county's request.

• The five-year contract could be canceled at any time.

• Firms must have at least five years' experience operating a wrecker service and at least three years' experience operating an auto pound.

• Contractors must provide service 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

• Contractors would be responsible for completing and maintaining all auction forms and vehicle registrations.

• The county may inspect the storage facility without prior notice at any time.

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