Bill would alter tow-truck dispatch

The Baltimore Sun

Pointing to a lack of minorities among the county's licensed tow-truck drivers, a Baltimore County Council member is pushing legislation designed to expand the number of towers authorized to respond to accident scenes.

Only one of the county's 33 licensed tow-truck drivers is believed to be a minority, county officials say. Many drivers have been denied licenses because of a requirement that a "need" be established before additional operators are permitted to serve a geographic area, officials say.

Under a proposal by Councilman Kenneth N. Oliver, the "need" requirement would be removed and the licensing of towers would be handled by a contractor.

The proposal is scheduled to be discussed today at a council work session in Towson.

"This has been a monopoly for many, many years," said Donald I. Mohler, a spokesman for County Executive James T. Smith Jr., whose administration worked with Oliver on the bill. Mohler added that the proposal would "enhance public safety because it will get police out of the towing dispatch business and privatize that operation."

The proposal has drawn criticism from an association that represents many of the county's licensed tow-truck drivers, who say the addition of a contractor would increase costs that would be passed on to motorists.

Richard Pollard, a licensed tower whose family has operated Pollard's Towing Co. in the county for more than seven decades, said consumers would lose out if established companies like his lose business to an expanded field of towers.

"There would be no profit in it," Pollard said. "Consequently, the services would go down because nobody's going to get up at 3 o'clock in the morning if there's no profit in it."

Oliver's proposal, which has been tweaked numerous times in recent months in the face of opposition from the Baltimore County Organized Licensed Towers, would affect only towers that respond to calls initiated by the police, who are required to use licensed towers after accidents that leave a car inoperable. Towers who respond to civilian calls are not required to be licensed by the county.

The bill includes provisions designed to protect consumers. For example, companies would be banned from charging motorists for the storage of vehicles on days that their lots are closed. Companies would have the option of staying open for three hours on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays or not charging for the storage of vehicles on those days.

Oliver, a Randallstown Democrat who in 2002 became the first African-American elected to the County Council, said he first learned of complaints about the licensing of tow-truck drivers when he was approached several years ago by a driver who said he was having trouble getting a license.

"The playing field is designed for the current towers association," Oliver said. "They're not allowing anyone else to enter into that association."

The driver who approached Oliver, Jeff Jordan, who is African-American, said he initially was awarded a license about seven years ago. The Baltimore County Organized License Towers appealed the license, arguing that the county had failed to establish an additional need for towers in Jordan's service area in western Baltimore County. The county Board of Appeals and the courts agreed, officials said.

The association agreed to drop its opposition to Jordan's license after reaching an agreement with the county that left Jordan with a relatively small service area.

County officials said they believe that Jordan and one other tower are the only drivers to receive new licenses from the county in the past decade.

Oliver's bill calls for a bidding process to select a contractor who would license towers and dispatch them to accident scenes. The county would pay nothing. Instead, the contractor would be paid a fee, set by the county, by the licensed towers.

Patrick Roddy, a lawyer representing the Baltimore County Organized Licensed Towers, said adding a contractor would reduce efficiency. Currently, officers must call dispatchers and report any problems. Under Oliver's bill, the contractor would dispatch the towers and monitor quality of service.

"There's an extra layer," Roddy said.

The county Police Department supports the bill, said Capt. Howard B. Hall, who oversees the department's Traffic Management Unit. Hall said that leaving the dispatching and monitoring of towers to a contractor would relieve officers of many responsibilities, such as ensuring that truck drivers arrive to the scene and documenting problems with their service.

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