By Yvonne Wenger, The Baltimore Sun
6:03 PM EDT, April 27, 2014
Baltimore City Councilman Robert W. Curran is tired of hearing about motorists whose cars were towed for reasons he finds ridiculous — for being parked outside the white lines in a supermarket lot, for instance, or at a fast food restaurant when the business was closed.
So he's sponsoring legislation to spell out a narrow list of conditions for which a vehicle can be removed from private property. And he would cut the allowed towing fee by nearly half.
"What they're doing is such a disincentive for people to come here and visit Baltimore," Curran said. "If you come into Artscape or go to a nice restaurant downtown or go to the Ravens game, and you come out and your car's gone, what a disincentive to come back."
The proposals are part of a package that also would cap the charge for vehicles towed from accident scenes and increase the fees paid to have parking boots removed from cars.
Tow truck companies are opposed, saying Curran's bills would hurt their ability to do business in the city and infringe on private property owners' rights.
"My kids have been towed. I have been towed," said Charles Parrish, general manager at Greenwood Towing and an official with the Towing Recovery Professionals of Maryland.
"It's a part of life by not following the rules," he said of being of towed. "We provide a service that I think is needed."
The city regulates towing from private lots with three or more spots and requires property owners to post signs warning drivers about the risk of being towed and saying where towed vehicles are taken.
Curran said missing from the existing local and state laws is a clear list of violations for which a vehicle can be towed. The omission, he says, has led to some creative reasoning for tow truck companies to haul away roughly 20,000 cars a year from private lots.
Another 19,000 are removed from roadways after breaking down or being involved in accidents, he said, and 12,000 are removed after being parked on streets during prohibited hours.
His legislation would cap at $140 the fee charged to owners of cars towed from public streets, which is the current rate in many cases. Curran also wants to reduce the fee charged for cars removed from private lots to $250 from the current maximum of $460.
Towing charges in surrounding areas generally are lower than what are allowed in Baltimore. In Baltimore County, which doesn't track the number of vehicles towed from private property, the fee towing companies can charge is $250.
Curran, who represents Northeast Baltimore, said there are situations when cars clearly need to be removed from private lots, such as when they block fire lanes and trash bins. He said, however, he thinks tow trucks should not be able to remove cars for parking over the white lines in lots, or for parking in lots during snowstorms when city roads become emergency routes.
Kevin R. Harris, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said the mayor backs the legislation.
"She supports his efforts to create a workable and fair process," Harris said. "Her goal is to see our city continue to grow, and she believes this legislation can help to address concerns raised by some residents and visitors who may have had problems with the current protocols."
Parrish said the towing industry in Baltimore already is well regulated. Tow truck operators that contract with private property owners to enforce their parking rules must be screened and approved by the city's towing board, and their employees go through drug screening and criminal background checks.
Parrish said the towing companies are required to have staff available 24 hours a day to release vehicles to their owners.
Curran's resolution calling on the tow board to come up with a list of towable parking violations for private lots is especially offensive, Parrish said. Greenwood has more than 3,500 clients that include homes, apartment complexes, churches and malls.
"We don't want the city to tell us what we can and cannot remove from our property as long as signs are posted," he said. "That's wrong."
Fred Scheler, owner of Henry's Wrecker Service, said Curran may be well intended, but his ideas will hurt companies like his.
Scheler said he tries to pay his employees a livable wage and provide health benefits while juggling volatile fuel costs and government regulations, such as a new state law that requires certified letters be sent to each towed vehicle's last registered owner.
"You have to make sure you're making enough money to cover your payroll and your taxes, and I don't think he's looking at the big picture," Scheler said. "A business can't run that way."
But to Chris Stone of Federal Hill, towing in the city is predatory.
He said he went to watch the Redskins game at a bar last season and parked in the wide-open McDonald's parking lot on East Fort Avenue.
When he returned to his car, Stone said, a tow truck driver was getting ready to haul it away. He paid $160 for the truck operator to release the vehicle, which is known as a "drop fee."
"There is nothing worse than going out to your car and seeing it gone, or seeing it picked up and them waiting for you to pay," Stone said.
LaVerne Vance, who owns and operates the restaurant, defended the decision to tow. She said ensuring parking for McDonald's customers is part of providing "top customer service and convenience."
"To ensure that our customers have parking available, we have displayed signs throughout the lot to notify drivers that the parking lot is reserved for patrons," Vance said.
Cassondra Zaleski said her car was towed the day she was moving into Ridgely's Delight after she was accepted to law school at the University of Baltimore.
" 'Welcome to Baltimore: You just got towed,'" Zaleski said. "That first night, I had no idea what was going on. I came back and my car was gone."
Zaleski said she had parked in a residential permit area during a pre-season Ravens game and didn't yet have the required sticker on her car.
She had to pay about $300 to retrieve the vehicle, after fees and a fine were factored in. Zaleski said she explained the situation to a judge, producing copies of her moving truck receipt, and was refunded her money.
Zaleski said the city should impose more regulations on tow truck companies and ensure that parking rules are more evenly enforced citywide. She said being towed as a visitor would make a person avoid the city.
"What's going to make them come back?" she said.
Paul Tolle, division chief of towing for the city Department of Transportation, said his top objective is to instill confidence in the industry in Baltimore. The city has made a series of reforms over recent years, including putting out to bid the city's towing contracts for crash scene removal and parking violations.
For decades, a small circle of companies was able to bypass the city's competitive bidding process. The practice came to light after a Police Department kickback scandal in which some officers pleaded guilty to accepting money in exchange for steering business to a certain garage.
Tolle said he works to make sure parking rules are enforced, but not in a predatory fashion.
"The only way to strike a balance is to keep checks and balances on the tow companies," he said.
Hearings on the legislation haven't been scheduled.
A majority of council members have signed on as co-sponsors to each of Curran's measures, but he said he's expecting industry opposition to make passage difficult.
"We'll see if there is a political will," he said.
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