Hardly towing the line


Beginning this Tuesday, watching your vehicle get hauled away by a tow truck will cost 26 percent more than it did as far back as five years ago the last time the city raised  towing fees and when gasoline costing more than three dollars was considered somewhat preposterous.

But the fee increase, leaping from $135 to $170, is not to satisfy the oft-villainized tow truck driver. It will instead barely cover operation costs for the city to tow and impound vehicles as gas prices rise in a faltering economy.

Unlike with the parking fees that were recently raised the city will gain no revenue from the increase.

The general philosophy of the city is that various activities need to be cost neutral, said Tom Culpepper, deputy director of the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services. We dont always fully recover costs and we certainly arent making profits on them.

The fee relates to city streets and lots, not the private sector where tow truckers control their own rates. Culpper said that city tows, carried out by a contracted company, usually involve abandoned vehicles or vehicles with an exorbitant amount of tickets. Even a DUI arrest may require a tow truck for an inebriated vehicle owner.

We receive maybe 10 to 15 vehicles a week, Culpepper said. We arent trying to make money to use it to offset other costs in the city or anything like that, but the fact is, the city as a municipality does need to have towing capability and we do it in a cost-neutral way.

Only one of the three fees associated with the citys towing practices impound, recovery and storage will rise. Gas prices have made the physical act of towing more expensive, while storage and recovery fees remain static.

Residents unhappy with the fee increase during strapped economic times can avoid the increase simply: Park legally. We dont go out and aggressively look for vehicles to tow, Culpepper said.

Experts say high towing fees are common in an industry with little regulation, making aggressive and predatory towing practices common throughout the country. But outsourcing the citys towing needs to one company insures communication between the two parties, eliminating unfair towing practices.

[Predatory towing] is not unique, said Ron Smith, vice president of marketing for C: Logic (Compiled Logic), a Houston-based company offering solutions for the impound industry through data collection. Its kind of a trend going on around the country.

Smith said the biggest problem his company encounters is a communication lag between municipal enforcement and towing companies, which leads to customers wondering if their car is stolen when they wake up on a Sunday morning to find it missing. More than likely it is sitting safely at an impound lot, which C: Logic helps monitor and update in real time.

The city contracts with Henrys Wrecker Service in Alexandria. CEO Fred Schler said that communication is no problem. The police call us and it doesnt make a difference where the car is, Schler said. We have to be there in 30 minutes. They expect you there within 30 minutes.

Schler said that Henrys contract with the city is small (I dont want to put all my eggs in one basket) compared to its wide range of business, but he utilizes his own technology to make sure his towing is done fairly. 

We dispatch through the internet in real time, Schler said. As long as I have a computer I can find out where any of my cars are.

Culpepper said that the rate it pays Henrys has not changed with the fee hike though it might once the contract is up for renewal.