PORTLAND, Maine — Drivers whose cars or trucks are towed in Portland will soon be charged more to get their vehicles back. But tow company operators say the fee hike still isn’t enough to cover their increasing costs.
As a result, the wrecker drivers say, the city may find itself without enough tow trucks to call when it needs multiple vehicles moved, like during snowstorms.
The Portland City Council this week approved its first slate of tow rate fee increases since 2008, moving the common day/night tow and snowstorm parking ban tow fees from $70 to $85 and accident tows from $75 to $95. Second re-tows, performed when a tow company is called to move a vehicle from a city impound lot to the company’s private lot after the car has been left in the city lot too long, have jumped from $25 to $85.
Those are the amounts the city will allow tow companies to charge for moving illegally parked vehicles in Portland, but Charlie Roussel of Charlie’s Auto Transport said the fees still pale in comparison to the $150 he can get to pick up a car that went off the interstate highway.
According to figures distributed to the council by city staff earlier this month, the average price estimate for a local tow company to hook up a vehicle and transport it approximately five miles is just more than $71. That’s an average gleaned from price estimates gathered from 18 area tow companies.
The lowest price reported to the council was from Yarmouth Auto Service, which reported it would do the job for $30 depending on the size of the car, and the highest was the Cumberland-based Copp Motors, which offered an estimate of $125 to move a sedan.
“It’s getting to a point where we’re not making money. We’re breaking even,” said Roussel, whose company has been towing for the city since the 1970s. “We can’t keep going on getting less than what it’s costing us for the overhead.”
Roussel told the council at its Monday night meeting it costs him $55 just to send a worker and wrecker to the site of an illegally parked car — and if the car owner pays $25 on the spot to prevent his vehicle from being hauled away, as is allowed in the city ordinance — he loses money on the trip. Roussel also said his costs to rent space to store towed vehicles has increased 25 percent, from $300 to $400 per month for 10 spaces, in the past year.
Lisa Hill, a manager for Portland-based A&T Towing, agreed.
“We’re just not going to make it,” she said. “The costs to run these trucks are just phenomenal. [The latest slate of increases] just doesn’t keep these trucks on the road.”
The end result, said Roussel, is that the city may find itself in a crisis when it needs tow trucks to enforce a parking ban during a snowstorm or other emergency.
“We don’t agree with these increases, and I think you’re going to find that you’ll have trouble getting tow trucks when you need them,” he told the council.
“We have had a couple of occasions when we have had major snow events where we’ve seen a reduction in tow operators, and I suspect that has been because of our fee structure and their availability,” Portland Director of Public Services admitted Michael Bobinsky Monday night.
The prospect of future snowstorms without enough tow trucks on hand worried some councilors.
“I have some concern that next winter it will be harder and harder to find trucks. I have less concern about keeping our rates low for constituents who may be parking illegally,” said Councilor Nicholas Mavodones. “There are increased costs, and sometimes those costs have to be passed along. They can’t be unreasonable costs, but if tow operators can’t break even, we have to look at that.”
Councilor Ed Suslovic said he rarely hears complaints about high tow fees during snowstorms, but often hears from constituents upset that illegally parked cars are preventing snowplows from clearing their streets in a timely fashion.
With a slate of tow fee increases already on the table in the Monday meeting, Suslovic and Councilor John Coyne each proposed additional increases, but both motions failed with 3-3 tie votes. Joining Coyne and Suslovic in favor was Mavodones, and opposing the additional fee hikes were Mayor Michael Brennan and councilors Kevin Donoghue and David Marshall.
All the councilors but Coyne voted in favor of the tow rate fee increases originally proposed for approval Monday night.
Councilors John Anton, Jill Duson and Cheryl Leeman were absent.
Marshall — chairman of the council’s Transportation, Sustainability and Energy Committee, which recommended the initial slate of increases — said the council needs to balance the concerns of tow truck drivers with the concerns of residents getting their vehicles towed.
“The vast majority of the categories went up substantially,” Marshall said Monday.
John Peverada, director of the city’s parking division, said he’s confident the city will continue to find tow operators during future snowstorms with the fee hikes approved Monday.
“One thing about a snowstorm parking ban is that it’s a steady stream of business for tow operators,” he told the council. “It’s probably 10 to 20 tows, if they want them, all at once.”