Two Anchorage Assembly members unveiled a sweeping set of changes to city towing laws this week, the culmination of a long-awaited crackdown on predatory practices in the local towing industry.
At Tuesday night's meeting, Assemblymen Dick Traini and Paul Honeman introduced an ordinance to toughen regulations, curb fees and penalties, and increase protection for consumers. Traini and Honeman last fall revived long-running efforts to take aim at what has been described as predatory towing practices and price-gouging by certain Anchorage companies.
Among other measures, the proposed ordinance caps the rate for a "nonconsensual" impound at $225, requires tow operators to take a photo of a vehicle before it is towed and prevents operators from fining someone for swearing or being aggressive.
"It's a bill of rights for involuntary tow services," Traini said.
Over the years, the Municipal Ombudsman's Office has received hundreds of calls from people complaining about having their cars towed and having to pay hundreds of dollars to get them back.
There were similar efforts in 2008 and 2011 to rewrite city towing laws. In a November 2013 Anchorage Daily News article, Honeman and Traini said the new ordinance would be ready in two weeks. But Traini said Wednesday the Assembly has "never been able to get the right people together" until now, nearly a year later.
In addition to putting a limit on how much companies can collect for a nonconsensual tow, the ordinance:
• Outlines new procedures for on-scene or "curb" releases, such as requiring a tow company to release a car for free if the driver comes back before the tow operator gets in the truck to leave. Tow companies would also be unable to charge more than $50 for a curb release.
• Prevents tow operators from parking within 1,000 feet of or posting a monitor at a private parking lot near a commercial building for the purpose of "covert observation."
• Prohibits penalties or fines, with the ordinance referring to an "aggressive client fee" and "profanity fee" as examples.
• Requires tow companies to take a photograph showing the vehicle and the violation.
• Forces tow companies to accept credit cards and checks, not just cash.
• Gives people a free trip to their impounded car to collect personal items, like a wallet or medicine.
A tow operator would also be required to call the Anchorage Police Department to report the tow before leaving the scene, not after.
The ordinance quickly stirred backlash from Anchorage towing companies. Owners and tow operators said the suite of regulations is burdensome and unfairly penalizes the entire industry for the unscrupulous actions of a few.
"One bad apple spoils the whole bunch," said Eric Brown, an operator with Action Towing, which patrols Northway Mall and private apartment complexes. Brown said the company tows only on the request of its contractors.
He said limits on how much companies can charge would cut into his company's income.
"We might even think about closing our doors," Brown said. "Or we just won't do impounds. And there will be a whole bunch of people with cars all over the place."
Brown said his tow company generally charges $350 for a car and $450 for a truck. He said those fees cover the company's costs, such as research, contacting APD and dealing with the vehicle if no one comes to collect it. He also said Action Towing charges at least $50 for an on-scene release, but that depends on the customer.
"If a customer comes out and is real hostile, it could be $75 to $150," Brown said.
Max Riggs, owner of Riggs Towing, said he doesn't have a problem with the $225 cap, which he said is about his company's current rate. He does take issue with other parts of the ordinance, like the new curb release policies and limits on storage fees. He said his company, which patrols the Bear Tooth Theatre Pub & Grill as well as hundreds of other properties, is drafting a letter contesting changes to the required insurance amounts.
Municipal Ombudsman Darrel Hess agreed that the majority of Anchorage towing companies abide by the rules and operate fairly. But he said the point of rewriting the law is to put teeth into existing regulations.
"It's not going to penalize the industry. It's just maybe giving the bad operators a little more incentive to follow the rules," Hess said. "And those that follow the rules are going to follow the rules anyway."
Traini said the Assembly is expected to vote on the ordinance within the next month. Because new towing permits and licenses take effect Dec. 31, the goal is to get the ordinance in effect by Dec. 1, Traini said.