Citizens complaint could lead to new rules for companies

Charges of predatory towing set the tone for the City Council’s Nov. 13 work session, as councilors responded to a Tualatin resident’s complaint that her vehicle was removed from a local parking lot with her dog locked inside.

Rachel Engstrom had also noted that the lot had vague signage about parking restrictions, and that she had only been away from her car for a few minutes before it was towed.

The incident occurred last April in the parking lot of the Country Inn bar. Portland’s Retriever Towing, the company that removed Engstrom’s vehicle, has faced accusations of predatory towing practices in the past. Better Business Bureau records show 28 complaints against the company have been filed in the past three years.

Engstrom’s experience highlights what many Portland metro residents see as the undue hardships imposed by private and potentially under-regulated towing companies. Common vehicle owner complaints include the difficulty of reaching private impound lots, particularly after hours and after an individual’s primary vehicle has been towed, as well as a perceived lack of security at impound lots. In addition, it is common practice for towing companies to require that the cost of vehicle recovery — which in Engstrom’s case totaled $359 — be paid in cash.

Councilor Monique Beikman agreed that such practices presented significant safety and economic concerns to motorists in Tualatin. The financial and emotional severity of Engstrom’s experience prompted the council to consider an ordinance to regulate towing practices.

“That’s where it really gets to be ridiculous,” Beikman said, “when you don’t have some kind of help in this situation. (Engstrom) felt that she had no other recourse but to talk to the council.”

Federal law allows property owners to hire private tow truck operators for “non-consensual towing,” or the removal of unauthorized vehicles from the premises. Individual state laws regulate towing business practices, and beyond that, cities are allowed to determine fee structure when a vehicle is impounded, towed and stored by a third-party tower.

The city of Portland adopted its own such ordinance in April 2004. Currently, Portland allows towing companies to charge an initial fee that is based on an established city tow contract rate, as well as the number of warnings signs posted near the private parking site. In addition, the towing company is allowed to add an eight percent profit margin for itself.

After accounting for the mechanical and equipment requirements of the tow, Portland’s current ordinance specifies that basic towing fees cannot exceed $240.25.

Other admissible penalties include a $10 service fee to the city, mileage charges, compensation for the tow operator’s standby time and an afterhours release fee. There is a separate fee if the vehicle owner is able to secure a “release at scene” prior to impound.

Portland’s storage fee structure allows the towing company to charge $25 to $35 each day the vehicle goes unclaimed, and after five days, a lien filing fee is applied, ranging from $40 to $85, depending on the value of the impounded vehicle. Beikman clarified that neither she nor the council was out to demonize private towing companies.

“I think minimally we can do something to help our citizens with the predatory part,” she said.

Prior to the council’s Nov. 14 work session, City Attorney Sean T. Brady organized a PowerPoint presentation that examined how much power federal, state and local governments had to regulate towing laws. Brady’s presentation outlined several state-level safeguards already in place against predatory towing.

Councilor Ed Truax points out that an ordinance would not have helped the issues Engstrom raised, since towing a vehicle with a pet locked inside was already a violation of state law.

“What we’ve got there is an enforcement issue,” Truax said.

The council did not decide whether to regulate the price of nonconsensual tows within Tualatin, as the city of Portland had done, Truax said. Nor did the council come to a consensus on whether to place mileage limits on the area a tow company can serve within the city — a measure which could potentially address safety concerns.

“We’re working to craft something that helps with the problem, but at the same time isn’t so onerous that we create more problems for our business owners (downtown),” Truax said.

But Mayor Lou Ogden said the council raised a compelling argument for instituting a city ordinance.

“Conversation mostly revolved around the state law, which none of us had seen before,” Ogden said, “and there was a discussion about the adequacy, or lack of adequacy, from the enforcement standpoint.”

Passing a city ordinance, even one that didn’t diverge from state law, would allow the city itself to enforce towing regulations. At the council’s request, City Manager Sherilyn Lombos worked with her staff to seek input from any Tualatin businesses that employ towing services. According to Lombos, a letter sent late last August outlined a proposed ordinance to regulate towing within Tualatin. Nearly nine business owners have responded, Lombos said, and the city is reviewing their feedback. Ogden said an updated draft of the proposed ordinance would include suggestions from the council’s work session, and would then be circulated publicly before it was put to council vote, likely early next year.

click here to view the city attorney's PowerPoint presentation.

click here to view Tualatin public comments

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