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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Tow Drama In Bakersfield, CA

Here's the story from www.bakersfield.com:

Four words -- "no more than six" -- are sparking a surprisingly heated fight as the city of Bakersfield gears up to change its tow truck rules.

The "six" refers to the half-dozen tow companies city police call out to accidents, crime scenes and DUI checkpoints.

But some 15 additional companies are qualified to respond to Bakersfield Police Department calls -- and they want on the list.

The drama has summoned local luminaries including George Martin and Trice Harvey along with a Los Angeles attorney who helped break up a tow ring in that city in the 1990s. All are lobbying city officials on behalf of different towing interests ahead of a vote scheduled for next week's city council meeting.

A chunk of change is at stake. Financial information provided to the city by the six tow-truck firms it contracts with show each takes in roughly $600,000 to $700,000 a year from the city call-outs. The figures include only towing and storage fees. Any additional revenue from unclaimed vehicles sold or parted out don't have to be reported to the city.

The totals also don't include a recent spurt in activity from grants for DUI checkpoints, where each car impounded in a DUI charge is stored for at least 30 days.

OLD HABITS

The city's system is one of habit, and City Manager Alan Tandy believes it is outdated.

It's been around since at least 1977, when Bakersfield's population was about 82,000. At that time, language in the municipal code specified the police department would use a rotating list of "no more than six" tow-truck companies.

"The BPD is functioning under very old practices," Tandy said. "There is not a clear, open, visible process by which you can get on this list."

He wants the city to adopt a roster of 21 companies contracted with the California Highway Patrol that now work in metro Bakersfield for the CHP and the Kern County Sheriff's Department. The CHP roster includes the six on the city's list.

The tow list recently came to the attention of the city manager's office when a councilmember requested policy information after a firm tried to get on.

Tandy's office found that over the decades, the process of getting on the list has become something of a mythologized process. Sure, companies could apply, but applications were effectively shoved into a drawer. Some relied on advice from patrol officers. Tow firms believed they needed to lobby to get, and stay, on the list.

"I waited about seven years for my opportunity," said Randy Winkle, owner of Randy's Towing, whose years-long wait is typical.

Winkle was recently named president of one of two factions that have sprung up around the controversy. The Bakersfield Towing Coalition represents the city's six contracted firms. Trice Harvey, a former state Assemblyman and county supervisor, is lobbying on the group's behalf along with law firm LeBeau Thelen.

Winkle said the coalition has no problem with expanding the list, but added: "Let's just do it in a timely manner."

He worries that "if we dilute the water too much" -- especially if the DUI grants dry up -- he won't be able to pay his seven employees or the loans on his trucks and land. Winkle said he pays about $7,000 a month per truck for such things as loan payments, wages, gas, insurance and wear and tear.

"We'd be done," he said. "I'd close down tomorrow."

But Robert Ring of Los Angeles law firm Ring & Green points out "other tow companies manage to be in business in Bakersfield."

Ring represents the 15 or so tow firms in another new group, the Bakersfield Towing Association, who support the city manager's push to update policy. In the mid-'90s, Ring helped break up decades-old tow contracts in Los Angeles.

"It might be in the interest of the six tow companies to hold onto monopolies," Ring said, but it's not good public policy.

His companies are just as qualified as the current six and if the city accepts state money for the DUI checkpoints, he said, it should follow state rules by allowing qualified firms to tow.

Association member Ray Tavakoli, owner of Lewis Towing, was among a group who attended the Jan. 13 city council meeting and spoke during the open comment session.

Tavakoli told councilmembers opening the list would create "more jobs, better response time" and would be mutually beneficial for local businesses and the police department.

COUNTDOWN

The issue came up recently after a councilmember asked for clarification of city policies after being contacted by a tow company trying to get on the list.

The company isn't a member of the association Ring represents. The city manager's office said Bakersfield attorney George Martin has been representing the firm, though Martin declined to comment for this story.

Whatever the firm might be pushing for, city officials want to completely revamp tow policy. Contracts would go through the finance office rather than BPD. Local firms on the CHP roster, which are backgrounded and inspected by the CHP, would be eligible. Like the CHP, there'd be open enrollment every year.

The proposal being sent to councilmembers next Wednesday would launch the new policy in July, when the annual CHP list comes out.

"Our point is that there should be a known public process for getting on and off the list," Tandy wrote in an e-mail, referring to adopting CHP procedures, "so that they can make business decisions on an open, understood basis rather than upon what they say a patrolman may have advised."

1 comment:

Mark said...

The city or Orlando in Florida has downsized their tow truck companies. The towing industry is a tough market to get into if you are just starting out. Especially getting a major city contract. My buddy runs a successful towing company in Orlando and it took him a long time to get to where he is now, with flatbed trucks. His site is centralflauto.com . I am sure he would do a article or interview with you, if you need some additional tow truck related content. Take it easy.

Mark.