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Urban Politics #316 - November 8, 2011
By City Councilmember Nick Licata
Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.
CAR TOWING RATES
In response to columnist’s Danny Westneat’s Seattle Times article ( Nov 29, 2011) about excessive towing fees ($800 in the example he writes about) charged to tow cars off private property, my office contacted the City Attorney’s Office to determine how the City could stop this practice. While it is reasonable to charge people who park on private property when they aren’t authorized to, they shouldn’t have to pay whatever charge the towing company decides, no matter how high the rate.
According to State Law, towing companies must file their rates with the Washington State Department of Licensing. But, it stops there: there is no regulatory limit on what tow companies can charge for impounding a vehicle from private property, they simply file their rates with the State.
Westneat’s article caught the eye of a number of local officials. My staff called the City Attorney’s Office the morning Westneat’s article appeared in the paper and asked if there was any state prohibition on Seattle setting limits on fees charged by towing companies. Apparently that day the Mayor talked to the City Attorney and Councilmember Tim Burgess called the City’s Finance office, also expressing concerns about the information revealed in the article.
A week after my initial inquiry, on December 7th, the City Attorney’s Office reported back with a very thorough memorandum stating their belief that Seattle should be able to regulate tow company rates. I subsequently shared it with the Mayor and Councilmember Burgess, and announced my intention to work with both to write consumer protection legislation next year that would set a reasonable cap on towing fees within Seattle.
There is no reason why Seattle should not emulate the practices of other cities like Minneapolis, Portland and Indianapolis who all cap private towing rates; it’s time that Seattle join their ranks. Currently the city contracts with towing companies to remove cars from the streets when they have violated the law. In this manner we set towing rates, but they do not apply to vehicles towed from private property.
Currently most vehicles towed from public properties are subject to a flat rate. Costs can range from $65 per tow to $188 per hour depending on the gross weight of the vehicle and the zone within which the tow takes place, plus an administrative fee. Storage fees are separate. For example, if a vehicle towed for law enforcement purposes from Zone 4, which includes Capitol Hill, the vehicle’s owner would be charged $95 plus a $15 administrative fee.
The Council should also look at how easy it is for cars to be retrieved from storage and what the costs are. One constituent already wrote to me hoping that the Council will take a look at those facets of towing and impoundment, otherwise “there’s always the chance that what’s lost on towing fee limits will be shifted to impound/storage rates.”
Councilmember Burgess has also recommended that we look at how someone can challenge costs and whether laws about disposal of towed vehicles are being currently being followed. Overall, I’d like to see not only rates capped, but a code of conduct adopted by the towing companies so that they are exercising consistent and fair business practices.
The Mayor has also spoken out in working with the Council to protect Seattleites from predatory towing practices and charges. He is now asking his departments to review the City’s own policies and contracts with towing companies that tow vehicles on City property and City streets.
I expect that the Council will have a draft of legislation to share with the public during the first quarter of next year, with a vote on it by the end of that quarter.
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