July 19, 2013

In compromise, Portland raises car-towing fees to $85

Although wrecker companies asked for the change, they say it's still not enough to pay the bills.

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – Getting towed in Portland is getting more expensive.

click image to enlarge

Ben Roussel of Charlie's Auto Transport stands by his truck and lot on Warren Avenue in Portland on Thursday, July 18, 2013.

John Patriquin / Staff Photographer

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City officials agreed this week to raise the fees that tow companies are allowed to charge when the city – usually police – calls for a vehicle to get towed. A daytime tow that used to cost $70 will now cost $85.

Tow truck operators say that's still not enough.

"We did get an increase – certainly not what we asked for," said Lisa Hill of Professional Communications, who dispatches tow trucks and represented tow companies during negotiations. "Tow companies are struggling. There is no profit here and we can't even pay our bills."

Portland's rate is comparable to the fees that tow companies can charge in other cities.

South Portland and Bangor allow $65 for a basic city-initiated tow during the day, while Westbrook allows $70 and Biddeford allows $90.

Those rates don't include charges such as storage fees.

Tow companies' fees have come under scrutiny since a company operating in South Portland was accused of charging a man $1,400 to tow a car from an accident scene.

The company refunded the money, but the incident triggered an investigation by the city that led to three companies' suspension from the city's list of tow companies to call.

In response, Portland investigated to determine whether any of its tow truck operators have been overcharging.

Assistant Police Chief Vern Malloch said a sampling of people who had been towed showed there had been no overcharging, though occasionally the allowable fees were exceeded when tows were covered by insurance. For instance, one charge was $90 when the ordinance allowed for $70.

"We didn't experience the price-gouging South Portland had seen," Malloch said.

Some towns, including Falmouth and Windham, have no limit on tow fees, and state police don't dictate what a company can charge for hauling a car off an interstate.

"The other towns support the tow companies because the tow companies are doing them a service," said Charles Roussel, owner of Charlie's Auto Transport.

Biddeford's ordinance allows the police chief to set tow rates. Police Chief Roger Beaupre said it's important to have a fee schedule but it needs to be balanced by keeping the rates fair.

"Some of these wrecker operators are in a position really to gouge some unsuspecting person involved in an accident, figuring the insurance company will pay for it, but really we all pay for it," he said.

Bangor solicits bids and contracts with a single company. In Lewiston and Auburn, tow companies police themselves. People who want to complain about particular tow charges can appeal to the Androscoggin Towing and Safety Association, which represents the tow truck operators, said Lewiston police Sgt. David Chick.

Portland's tow companies have long lobbied for higher fees, saying that while they can charge any rate they want when someone needs a car hauled to a mechanic, city-initiated tows are capped by an ordinance that protects the vehicle owner.

The city calls for a tow when a car has been in an accident or when a car is illegally parked on a street.

In her presentation to the city in defense of a $100 charge for towing, Hill, of Professional Communications, said diesel fuel costs for tow trucks can exceed $3,000 a month. Insurance costs another $1,500 or more per month. New trucks cost upward of $100,000 each.

Staffing can also be a challenge. Tow truck operators can't be paid by the hour, since much of their time is idle, so they are paid a portion, usually one-third, of the tow fee. That means high turnover, since many drivers don't want to be on call to tow a car in the middle of the night for $25.

(Continued on page 2)

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