Towing fee-cap proposal to be introduced this week – but too late for a West Seattle car-theft victim

(TUESDAY UPDATE: There’s a Thursday briefing at City Hall – agenda here)

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

Right after the Seattle City Council returns from its summer break post-Labor Day, a new set of rules will be proposed and is likely to generate intense debate.

It’s a proposal to change city rules to cap fees charged for “involuntary towing from private property” – also known as “private impounds” – announced a month ago by Mayor McGinn and Councilmember Nick Licata.

The actual package of proposed rules itself was not made public at the time of that announcement. In fact it was not finished and published until a few days ago (when we checked last month, a Licata staffer told WSB they were “tweaking it before we formally introduce it”). It’s now on the city website – see all the specifics here. The key points include:

A. Towing service fee: The maximum hourly fee that tow companies may charge for towing service for private impounds shall be no more $209 for the first hour and $130.60 for the second and subsequent hours for tows conducted with a Class A, D, or E tow truck. …

4. The hourly fee must be applied to the resulting net time and, after the first hour, must be rounded to the nearest fifteen minutes. …

B. Uncompleted tow fee: Tow companies may charge no more than the maximum hourly towing service fee specified in subsection 6.214.220.A for an uncompleted tow. Beginning with the first hour, no more than one quarter of the hourly fee may be charged for each fifteen minutes of towing service work performed. Reimbursement for time spent on an uncompleted tow can only be computed from the time of dispatch to the time the car is released to the vehicle operator.

C. Storage fee: The maximum storage fee that tow companies may charge for storing a private impound vehicle shall be no more than $15.50 for each 12-hour increment. …

D. After hours release fee: The maximum fee that a tow company may charge to release a privately impounded vehicle outside of normal business hours may not exceed $100. …

If it passes and does what the mayor and councilmember suggest it would, it might prevent future cases like that of a West Seattle woman who told WSB she lost her car three times – first and second times to a car thief, then, finally, to a towing/impound bill she couldn’t afford.

The victim, who asked not to be identified, reported her car stolen in June – for the second time. Just over two weeks later, she got a call from the city saying it had been found and towed. The towing company told her it had been sitting in a SODO nonprofit’s parking lot for two weeks, and that company finally called for it to be towed. They didn’t call police first, according to the car’s owner. But they did call police after the car already had been turned over to the towing company; SPD confirmed it was stolen, and contacted her, also saying they “found needles in the car and that I should be very careful when I get the car back and go through it.” (The writing on the car’s window in the top photo references “niddles/biohazzard” [sic].)

She says the fee quoted to her to get the car (towed about one mile from where it was found) was $542 – out of her reach. So, she says, the company “was quick to tell me I can bring my title in and transfer the car over to them.” They even said they were giving her a deal, because usually, they said, they would still expect half the bill to be paid, even with the car being handed over. But, they said, weekend personnel had misinformed her, so they would simply accept the car.

Adding insult to injury, she says the police report had a note to contact her if the car was found, and NOT to tow it – though by the time police heard about it, apparently it was too late.

So, she was without a car. And you have heard the story before – Seattle Times (WSB partner) columnist Danny Westneat told tales of high towing bills more than once last year.

The Seattle proposal comes on the heels of a failed push for statewide caps. Some state legislators, including the 34th District’s State House Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, tried taking on the issue last session. He was a co-sponsor of HB 2372, which stalled after approval in the House.

Asked what happened, Fitzgibbon recalls, “Throughout the session we saw a frequent back-and-forth between the towing industry, which was willing to accept a cap if the cap was relatively high and imposed statewide, precluding local governments from imposing lower caps, and the city of Seattle, which wanted above all to have the authority to set its own cap lower than the state if it so chose. The bill we passed out of the House Transportation Committee was supported by the towing industry but not Seattle, and the bill we passed out of the House was supported by Seattle but not the towing industry. It ultimately died in the Senate because these two parties could not come to an agreement. My view was that either approach (a statewide cap or one that allows local governments the ability to set a lower cap) would be preferable to the current situation.”

So now, the city of Seattle is taking aim. The proposal is on the council’s introduction-and-referral calendar for Tuesday afternoon; it is to be referred to the Government Performance and Finance Committee, but is not on that committee’s agenda for Wednesday, so the first discussion will be at least two weeks away.

TUESDAY UPDATE: We’ve since been informed that the committee has a special extra meeting this week, and the towing bill will be discussed at the second meeting – 2 pm Thursday; agenda here.

20 Replies to "Towing fee-cap proposal to be introduced this week - but too late for a West Seattle car-theft victim"

  • ~~HockeyWitch~~ September 2, 2012 (9:27 pm)

    WHILE they are at it, they need to change the rules for towing a stolen car. When my car was stolen a couple of years ago, it had been reported to the police day of theft… 6 days later it was found because the thieves left it parked in the parking lot of Sound Bank, down by the Museum of Flight. The bank had it towed.. I got the call that my car had been found and it was at the tow lot because it had been impounded. I marked on the police report IF FOUND, DO NOT IMPOUND IT.. CALL ME… but because it was on private property it was impounded… I had to pay almost $500 to get my STOLEN CAR back, even though there was a Stolen Report on it. I OBVIOUSLY didn’t park it there. Fee’s should be waved for anyone who’s car is impounded when the car has been reported Stolen. Complete BS. Towing companies are running a racket. Jerks!!

  • coffee September 2, 2012 (10:20 pm)

    I agree. Why is a standard tow to a repair shop so much less, I recently paid 78.00 to go 3.5 miles…. this all sounds like they have you by the neck and they do not care.

  • Mike September 2, 2012 (10:40 pm)

    You can legally park your car, have it towed and the tow company will send it to auction. Check this out,

  • Kevin September 2, 2012 (11:13 pm)

    Agreed! Hope this new measure passes!

  • Gary September 3, 2012 (1:02 am)

    I hope this passes, these tow companies can be a complete rip off, your screwed once your car ends up in there towyard!

  • 56bricks September 3, 2012 (1:47 am)

    I’ve had two cars stolen, 40 years apart and same scenario. Towed and stored for weeks and I got the bill with no notice from SPD (reported), and was only contacted for auction. Smell a rat?

  • Eric September 3, 2012 (8:12 am)

    Tow companies have honest people will tow your car for a reasonable fee. Of course many/most of them are shady and they didn’t earn their poor reputation by accident.
    I had to look up how they were ranked in consumer complaints (Consumer Federation of America 2012) and what do you know. They are part of the group that tops the list. “1. Auto: Misrepresentations in advertising or sales of new and used cars, lemons, faulty repairs, leasing and towing disputes”
    When you get put in the same bucket as new/used auto salesmen you are pretty much on the bottom of the food chain.

    • WSB September 3, 2012 (9:09 am)

      Eric’s comment reminds me that it is important to note that the towing industry doesn’t consist entirely of roll up, hook up, tow away, charge … Since we cover pretty much every non-routine vehicle crash, we’ve seen towers deal with some doozies. Like this one in 2010:
      That one was such a challenge, the tow-company owner was there taking pictures for posterity. And just yesterday, on what was a lazy summer Sunday for so many, tow crews had to come out to two crashes in our area alone to get flipped/tipped vehicles cleared from local roads.
      But there must be a better way to deal with situations like the one featured in our story. We will track how this proceeds through the council.

  • JoAnne September 3, 2012 (9:20 am)

    Seattle couldn’t work out a deal? Surprising since they have their own “racket” with towers where the city skims over $100 off each tow.
    They get at least $40 for the parking ticket plus an “administrative fee” of about $100, and THEN the tower gets their fee, which is going to be at least as much as the city is getting.
    Honestly I think the city is responsible for these increases in towing fees.

  • Dale September 3, 2012 (9:48 am)

    The picture of the car in question has a Bio-Hazard notice. Which probably means a meth lab or bodily fluids from an accident. Years ago, this problem was very prevalent in Nevada and the state passed a statute that limited storage fees at $12 a day. Once I had to be towed off freeway because of a multiple mva accident. The tow company insisted they had to bring my car to their tow yard (storage) and not directly to the body shop. Since I was in the industry then (claims) I called BS on the driver.

  • Kathy September 3, 2012 (12:09 pm)

    That’s my stolen car in the image above! Thanks WSB for taking the time and bringing this situation up.
    I’m glad the city is looking into this. It’s a start. That’s still a chunk of change for a stolen car, roughly $340 plus. The tow yard is closed on weekends but you’re still being charged? You’re paying for a service you never asked for or requested. I realize there’s always going to be an exception to that like an accident. This was a situation of a car sitting in a (private) parking lot for two weeks.

    When the person from the city called to tell me my car was found, she suggested I contact the police to see if an officer would meet me at the towing company and help get my car released. When I called the police and explained the situation, I was told they won’t do that and it’s between the tow company and me. When I asked the tow company why they didn’t run the plate before towing, he said they got the call to get the car off private property, he does what he’s asked. Fair enough .. What would be fair is to have a protocol in place to run the plate before even going out to the location. That goes for, in this situation, the business where the car was found. Two potentials to call the police first and neither did that. A quick run on the plate to see if it was a stolen vehicle revealed it was stolen ..after it was in the tow yard!! I can see where you’re being informed about the car at the tow yard, then given x amount of time to pick up the stolen car, then start charging if not picked up in that timeframe, given it’s realistic, and make weekends available to get it.

  • DM September 3, 2012 (12:12 pm)

    Isn’t being in possession of a car that’s been stolen the same as possession of stolen property?

  • Mike September 3, 2012 (3:17 pm)

    I will add that many tow truck drivers are very good individuals who want to do right. I’ve had incredible experience using AAA for towing. Their own truck drivers and contracted drivers have done great work for me when I needed a tow. The one that stopped recently to give me his name and number after he saw the accident I was in (other guys fault) was a very nice surprise. He stopped and I thought he wanted to tow my vehicle. When I waved him off he said “no, I want to give you my information, I saw what happened, the other guy hit you, here’s my name and number”. So, just to give a thumbs up for some of these drivers, not all are bad. :)

  • ~~HockeyWitch~~ September 3, 2012 (5:03 pm)

    Kathy, THAT is EXACTLY what happened with my car.. It was reported stolen at 2pm on New Years DAY… It was towed from the lot at the bank on January 6th (my birthday by the way) at 10am.. I was not even NOTIFIED that it had been found or towed until 6pm that evening. It had been there ALL DAY collecting $100 of Fines, not to mention the Impound fee because the thieves left it on Private Property. The Officer met me at the tow yard… Never ONCE told me that I was going to have to pay to get it out.. I ran into the tow office with the paper work from the officer saying it was MINE.. the man at the desk Said, that’s gonna be $477.46.. My JAW HIT THE FLOOR!!!.. My car is stolen, so I got hosed by the thieves.. .THEN I have to pay to get it back from the tow yard, even though it was reported stolen and dumped.. I got HOSED AGAIN.. and it was all legal. MESSED UP!! They could have called and ran the plate to see if it was stolen. I was soooooo P*&@ed!!! And the fact that they didn’t call me til 6pm, which was now AFTER HOURS.. I got charged an After Hours fee as well.. THEY HAD ITS since 10 that morning!!.. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

  • Skeeter September 3, 2012 (7:11 pm)

    This is a horror story. Note to self – call insurance company and ask if towing/storage of my stolen vehicle is covered or not. (I realize not everyone has full coverage insurance. I’m just curious if this sort of thing is covered or not for those of us who do have full coverage.)

  • I. Ponder September 3, 2012 (10:21 pm)

    “Nipples stay out of biohazard”?

    • WSB September 3, 2012 (11:13 pm)

      IP, it’s “niddles,” as in a mangled spelling of “needles” …

  • Kathy September 4, 2012 (7:35 am)

    My insurance does include towing but that’s a mute point cause others chose to do that for me at my expense. As far as recovery for anything, that’s null as well. I have liability. With an older car, it’s not recommended to have comprehensive. Plus there’s a deductible! No matter what, you’re screwed. Aside from the activity done inside the car, and lots of dog hair, I was told the car itself was fine. Hopefully, we start training officers to get finger-prints from stolen cars like California is doing.
    It’s well known that (most) tow companies have a bad reputation. It seems that no matter what the outcome is for tow company’s ‘rules’, based on their track record, chances are the ‘rules’ will be bent in their favor and NOT the consumer.. cause ‘they have to get back their recovery costs’. These ‘recovery costs’ are very expensive.. (according to map quest) tow yard was one mile away- two minutes driving time.. cost over $500.. whatever. I miss having a car :(

  • DM September 4, 2012 (10:13 pm)

    I don’t understand why a tow yard company can be in possession of stolen property and there’s no penalty for them. It doesn’t sound like there’s any incentive for them to even check with the police.

  • Kathy September 5, 2012 (6:28 pm)

    DM.. I agree with you.. they have stolen property in their possession.. because they can! Any time I’ve taken my car in for repairs, they always get my ok before giving car repairs (service)I didn’t ask for.. unethical comes to mind. People need their cars and will pay it.. and for us that can not pay it, we fork over the vehicle..messed up

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