It's first tap at Bear Tooth Theatrepub in Spenard, and tow truck driver Tony Newsom is on a stakeout.
His 30-foot truck, a gleaming white International, sits hidden in shadows across a strip-mall parking lot from the crowded Midtown restaurant and movie house. Cars arrive. Cars leave. Newsom, 32, watches them all.
"I can tell you right now, the people who got out of that car are going to Bear Tooth," he says as a silver Volkswagen parks in the private lot outside a yoga center.
Sure enough, the driver ignores the businesses in the strip mall, walks past the "No parking" signs and the rows of parked cars crammed along 27th Avenue and strolls into the Bear Tooth. Newsom watches through his windshield, a picture of his wife on the dashboard and a collapsible nightstick tucked in his Carhartt jeans.
It's about 8:30 p.m. on a recent Thursday. In another two hours, once the sun sets on the Spenard Center blacktop, he'll tow the car for illegal parking and haul it to an impound lot in Ship Creek.
To get her car back, the driver will have to pay a fee: $260 to $320.
Newsom, who keeps a cut of the money, has performed as many as nine such impounds in a night. He has a wife and 6-year-old son to provide for, he said. He calls it a living.
Some Assembly members call it "predatory towing" and are considering placing a limit -- for the first time since city towing regulations were created in 1983 -- on how much tow companies can charge people to get their cars back.
"Someone is coming into your life without your permission to take your vehicle, which is a pretty substantial investment," said East Anchorage Assemblyman Paul Honeman, a former police officer who is considering a run for mayor. "The government's role here, in my opinion, is to protect you from overreach, from being ripped off."
Currently, there is no limit on how much tow operators can charge. In interviews, Anchorage drivers report paying more than $400 as companies add fees for weekend storage, paperwork and opening their impound lots at night. One operator was billing people for using foul language when they called to complain about a tow, the city clerk said.
Even some of the tow truck companies hired to haul illegally parked cars from lots outside apartment complexes, government offices and businesses say it might be time for a change.
"I'm not ashamed of what I do, and I think there's a need for nonconsent towing," said Glen Bailey, owner of Alaska Towing and Wrecking, which patrols the City Hall parking lot among others. "But there's got to be a lid on it somewhere."
WIDE RANGE OF TOWING FEES
Here are the types of towing the people generally aren't angry about:
When your truck breaks down and you need a haul to the mechanic. When you lock your keys in the car and need someone to open the door. For those jobs, you agree to pay the tow operator a competitive rate. Usually less than $100.
When you get in an accident and the police need to remove your car from the roadway, they contact one of several companies that serve on a rotation for city towing services. Those rates are pre-negotiated between the police department and tow companies and currently range from $85 for a daytime tow, plus mileage, to $160 on holidays.
But when you get caught parking illegally on private property -- anywhere from the parking lot at the strip mall across from Bear Tooth to permit-only lots outside condo complexes or downtown offices? That's when bills balloon and tempers flare.
Some companies charge as little as $175 for these "nonconsensual tows" and impounds. Others ask as much as $450 for a weekend impound, then stack various "gate fees" and other surchages. Some demand payment in cash, Assembly members say.
Newsom works for Riggs Towing, where owner Maxey Riggs said the company's impound rates fall somewhere in the middle of the Anchorage market. The business does not require drivers to pay cash, he said.
"There's other people who are just out there really gouging. To me I think $450, $500 is insane," Riggs said.
"There's other cases where they tell them they can't get their car until Monday, and here it's a Friday night," he said.
But unlike taxicab rates, the city doesn't regulate impound fees.
In 1983, the Assembly adopted loose guidelines for nonconsensual tows. Proposed by Assembly member Lidia Selkregg, the rules say all towing rates must be "reasonable." Even back then, drivers were confused. What did "reasonable" mean, exactly?
When a speaker before the Assembly complained that the new language was too vague, the city attorney at the time warned that the municipality lawyers wanted to avoid getting into the business of setting rates, according to notes from the meeting.
But talk of doing just that has been simmering in the Assembly for years, as drivers who readily admit to parking illegally complain to city leaders that it's become far too expensive to retrieve their impounded cars.
Honeman, chairman of the Assembly public safety committee, has held meetings on the towing industry and said he is thinking of trying to put a limit on impounds charges into city law.
One idea, he said, would be to tether the price tow operators can charge for private property impounds to some figure slightly above the amount some tow truck companies have already negotiated for police impounds.
The proposal could cut the highest impound rates by hundreds of dollars. Tow operators, however, say performing a nonconsensual impound should still cost more than tows for the police department because it's a perilous task barbed with showdowns and shouting matches.
"We don't have an officer sitting there with a gun on his hip protecting our butt while we do a (private property impound)," Riggs said.
Honeman said he is working on a proposal that could be shared with the public safety committee and tow operators as early as next month.
Adding a regulatory scheme is one option for curbing tow truck complaints, Downtown Assemblyman Pat Flynn told readers of his blog recently. But "it's not clear where we could find the resources or how effectively we could provide enforcement," he wrote.
"Another idea, one I'm growing to like is to require the property owners or their representatives to sign a form authorizing each tow performed on their lot," Flynn wrote.
A similar plan surfaced in a 2008, in a proposal aimed at reducing impound fees and requiring property owners to sign off on impounds tows. Pitched by Dick Traini of Midtown and Allan Tesche, the late Downtown Assemblyman, it never reached a vote.
If Honeman doesn't move to change to towing rules, Traini said he plans to resurrect his own proposal.
"I still hear complaints about it," he said.
Vita Castellana, a state Health Department employee who lives downtown, recently woke to find her Honda CR-V missing from her apartment parking spot. She'd been out late the night before, driving her sister to the airport and returned home with two sick daughters, she said.
She forgot to attach a permit to her rearview mirror. By morning, the little SUV had been towed.
The tow truck operator told Castellana the bill would be $375 to get her vehicle back but lowered the price by $75 when Castellana complained that she was going to have to take a cab from work to avoid paying additional after-hours fees, she said.
Even so, the unexpected bill broke her budget until payday. "I had to borrow money from my friend to buy groceries," she said.
Mary Jordan parked in the Spenard Center lot -- the one across from Bear Tooth -- on Aug. 30. Like the silver Volkswagen at the beginning of this story, she parked somewhere near the yoga studio, she said.
Generally empty at night, the off-limits lot is particularly tempting to frustrated drivers who are struggling to find a place to park near Bear Tooth or Chilkoot Charlie's.
Jordan left the restaurant at about 9:30 p.m. to find her Honda Civic had disappeared, she said.
"I'm not contesting that I was in the wrong," Jordan said, but she also thought it was OK to park in that particular corner of the lot.
"$320 for having my vehicle in their yard for less than three hours I feel is unreasonable," she said.
Tammy Krous, who manages the property that includes the yoga studio and several other businesses and restaurants, said none of them receives a cut of the impound charges but that policing the lot for illegal parking is essential.
"If I don't do something about the parking, I end up with unhappy tenants," she said.
As for the price tag, Krous said the average person can't afford high towing bills and as city leaders discuss changes to tow regulations, she'd like to see tow operators provide numbers showing why the high rates are necessary.
"I don't see that it should be over $200, ever, unless it's a big semi and you need a bigger tow truck," Krous said.
BUSINESS HEAPED WITH EXPENSES
Riggs, the company that patrols the lot as well as the downtown Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission lot near Nordstrom and other lots that would be tempting to illegal parkers, has six drivers and 10 trucks, Max Riggs said. Impounds amount to only about 20 percent of his business, he said.
Even Newsom, who is Riggs' go-to impound driver, regularly performs other jobs, from hauling cars from ditches to clearing roadways for police.
Meantime, the business is heaped with expenses, Riggs said. About $11,000 a month for fuel. Roughly $8,500 a month in insurance bills. A tow truck like the one Newsom drives can cost $120,000 -- or twice that amount if it's a heavy-duty rig for hauling large equipment, according to the company.
"I'm good with them knocking it down," Riggs said of the nonconsensual towing rates. "But they have to understand some of the pains involved with impounds."
Chief among those pains is confronting angry drivers -- some of whom know they're parking illegally but don't think they'll get caught. It can be a dangerous job.
Newsom, who is 6 feet 2 inches, has been threatened but never attacked, he said. He carries pepper spray along with the baton.
"As long as I don't show that I'm scared and I stay, like, having a dominant voice, people are going to back off," he said.
Newsom said he tries to defuse most drivers with humor. He tells them how they are trespassing on private property and their car is going to "jail" at the impound lot.
"People call us stalkers, stuff like that. But if you're illegally parking on somebody else's property that they paid for, paid taxes on to the city, it's their property to do whatever they want with," he said. "If they don't want everybody and their brother parking on their property, that's their right."
BAD ATTITUDE COSTS MORE
There are 28 tow operators with licenses on file with the city. Only 11 say they have impound lots, and only eight of those companies indicate that they tow cars from private property -- the kind of nonconsensual tows that drive the majority of complaints about the industry.
Action Towing, one of the smaller outfits, lists impound rates of $350 during business hours and $450 on weekends. That doesn't include a $50 gate fee and other potential charges.
Drivers may pay less than the listed rate if they have the right attitude, said Montgomery Elliott, who works for the business and is a former owner.
"I don't charge people what I list it as unless they open the conversation with, 'You know what, are you the (expletive) who towed my car?' " Elliott said. "They're the ones who get that price."
Bailey, owner of Alaska Towing and Wrecking, said his company charges $175 to $225 for impounding vehicles found parked on private property. He doesn't allow drivers to sit and watch a parking lot to see if someone parks illegally, he said.
(Many impounds result from property owners reporting illegally parked cars or drivers finding vehicles parked in private lots without permits.)
Bailey is open to the idea of a limit on impound fees but said companies like his, veterans of the local impound business, haven't been included in the conversation.
"My company has been around since 1955, and I didn't even get a phone call to participate with the Assembly or anybody who was making the decisions," he said.
HE NEEDS THE WORK
Newsom, the Riggs Towing driver, has performed more than 350 impounds this year, he said. Last year he personally impounded 426 vehicles.
"There's a need for me to do it," he said. "My wife can't work because of physical reasons, so I'm the sole provider. ... I try to make as much money as I can to live comfortably."
By 10 p.m., neon lights lit Spenard Road, and the parking lot Newsom had been watching was nearly empty. He'd hoped to flag even more cars for impound, but Bear Tooth customers who attend first tap seem to be learning that parking in the Spenard Center is a bad idea.
Signs posted to the glass doors of the restaurant issue the warning. "Hey you! Your car is being towed if you parked across the street!"
Newsom finally climbed back into the cab and rumbled to a stop a few feet in front of the Volkswagen. He pulled chains from his truck, the steel clattering on the asphalt.
Minutes later the tow truck, and the car, were gone.
By KYLE HOPKINS
Anchorage Daily News