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Friday, July 16, 2010

PA Towing Bill Looks to Give Car Owners More Rights

Here's the story from the York Daily Record:
The Rev. Patrick Rooney doesn't frequently get involved in politics, but this time it's personal.

The pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in York has been paying special attention to a bill before the state Senate that would limit how and when towing companies could haul cars to their lots.

Rooney started researching the bill after Good Friday, when several cars belonging to church worshippers were towed from the parking lot of an adjoining Wachovia Bank. For many years, the worshippers at the South George Street church had parked in the lot, but -- unbeknownst to most churchgoers -- the new building management revoked that policy.

The bill, which passed in the state House and is now before the Senate, wouldn't have prevented the cars from being hauled away that evening, but it would have made the process a lot more transparent, Rooney said.

If the bill becomes law, towing companies would be responsible for contacting the owners of towed cars within 24 hours to provide the address and phone number of the location where the car is being held. That didn't happen in the church's case, Rooney said. The owners of the cars that were towed -- many of which belonged to the disabled and elderly -- weren't called, he said.

"Some of our elderly and handicapped folks stayed away," he said. "We organized valet services, greeted them at the door and parked their car for them, but it still had an effect upon us. Some folks who have been worshipping here for decades felt put
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off."

The proposed legislation would also limit a practice known as predatory towing -- when towing companies remove vehicles with no notice and don't properly disclose fees.

If the bill passes, towing companies would be required to provide access to cars on their lots during business hours, would have to disclose all fees prior to towing a vehicle if the owner was present and would have to allow a vehicle to leave during business hours if it was paid for.

State Rep. Eugene DePasquale, D-West Manchester Township, said predatory towing problems are among the top four complaints received by his office. People parking in the city should have the ability to know where their cars are and how to get them back, DePasquale said. DePasquale, a member of the church, said the complaints are what led him to vote for the bill in March.

"It creates an environment where people outside the city are afraid to park inside the city," he said. "It hurts economic development, it hurts commerce and it hurts (the city's) reputation."

But legislators also have to be careful to maintain a balance between encouraging people to come downtown and allowing businesses to maintain their private property, said Tom Donley, York County Chamber of Commerce president. The chamber has not yet considered a position on the bill, but it will if it looks likely it will pass, Donley said.

Sometimes property owners who deal with the public only during regular business hours don't think of taking a more flexible approach, Donley said.

"It's just simpler to say 'OK, I'm going to hire a towing agency and if someone parks on the lot, tow them,'" he said. "I'm not sure they look at the bigger picture, that this could have a negative impact on their property values."

Legislators have until November to vote on the bill this session. If it doesn't pass, Donley suggested handling the issue on a county level.

"It's not always fun to wait for a state law," he said. "You'd like to start to deal with it locally."

Update

After several months of negotiations, Christ Lutheran Church reached an agreement with the owners of the adjacent Wachovia Bank parking lot last week, the Rev. Patrick Rooney said. Church worshippers will be permitted to use the lot from 7:45 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sundays, he said.

All church services will be covered by the agreement, but parking during other events held at the church will have to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis, he said.

The bill

Here is what the bill proposes:

--- Fees for towing, storage and other services as well as hours of operation, phone number must be on all contracts and posted at the storage facility.

--- An owner must be informed of the towing company's address, phone number and fees before towing. If the owner is not present, it must be provided by the company when contacted by owner. Towing companies must inform owners that their vehicle has been towed within 24 hours.

--- Towing companies can tow from the scene of an accident only if summoned by the owner or police.

--- Operators must release vehicles during hours of operation as long as they have been paid for. Owners must be permitted to inspect their vehicles during those hours, and storage fees cannot be charged for any period during which the owner was not allowed to inspect the vehicle.

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