Wednesday, December 4, 2013
PORTLAND – Getting towed in Portland is getting more expensive.
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
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.
The number of tows initiated by the city has declined, because parking enforcement officers are "booting" cars more often to get scofflaws to pay parking tickets.
The city also has cut back in recent years on the number of cars towed for street sweeping. Fewer tows mean less revenue for tow companies, Hill said.
Portland's director of communications, Nicole Clegg, said it made sense to revisit the rates.
"It was a reasonable request," Clegg said. "The tow piece hadn't been adjusted in over seven years. The costs have increased. We were trying to work with them to come up with an appropriate rate."
Roussel, with Charlie's Auto Transport, said his overhead costs have gone up 25 percent in the past six years.
He said he averages one city-initiated tow a day in Portland, and many tows are for snowstorm parking bans. Roussel supplements his towing business by buying and selling cars and transporting vehicles.
The new rates will help a little, he said.
"But during the big parking bans and stuff, a lot of us go out on the interstate and turnpike and make more money than we do towing for the city at night," he said.
He said a tow on the interstate can earn $200.
Roussel said that while the tow operators are happy to see Portland raise its fees, there are still issues between the city and tow truck operators.
Tow operators want to see an increase in the amount they can charge for a "drop," when the vehicle owner shows up before the car is towed and moves the car. The allowable charge is now $25 in Portland, they say, while it should be closer to $50.
They also want to see a change in accident tow rates, which are now $95, up from $75.
"No two accidents are the same," Roussel said. "Two trucks, winching them, rollovers, or submerged vehicles – each one has its own amount of time and work that needs to be done."
Hill said she has a philosophical problem with any limit on tow charges.
"They don't regulate the ridiculous amounts of money we pay to insurance companies each month," she said in an email. "They don't regulate what a heating company charges to come out and fix someone's furnace so why should they regulate what we charge for a tow?
"They are about helping the people who break the laws," she said, "and not to small business trying to survive here."
David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: