Wicomico Council Seeking To End Tow Company Gouging

SALISBURY – Months after the City of Salisbury attempted to address the matter, Wicomico County has had enough of tow companies taking advantage of citizens and is looking to develop a tow ordinance of its own.

Donald D’Aquila sent a letter to the County Council stating that he has been in the automobile business for 38 years and in May he went to Rathel’s Towing in Salisbury to pick up a vehicle that had been towed in which he is a lienholder. Upon arrival, he found out that the insurance had not paid the bill and there was minor damage to the vehicle. With $175 in his pocket, he was told that the cost for the tow and three days of storage is $625.

“I indicated that this was a prime example of why the City of Salisbury spent months and countless hours to develop a tow ordinance that was fair and affordable,” D’Aquila wrote. “The tow service made it a point to tell me that the County and State have no set fees and they charge what they want. Use any definition that you want but to be clear this is ‘highway robbery’ and a ‘license to steal’.”

D’Aquila is requesting the county consider using the City of Salisbury’s towing ordinance as an example to form its own. He also mentioned the tow operator also informed him that after 10 days in storage the bill would be increased $50 per day and tow operators would petition the state for a certificate to dispose.

The letter was brought to the council’s attention and the subject was discussed during Tuesday afternoon’s work session.

County Administrator Wayne Strausburg referred to the issue as a “gaping hole.” He provided the example of county citizens who live on a modest income who live paycheck to paycheck and by the time they can afford to have their car removed from impound the tow and storage charges exceed the value of the car.

“It’s not too harsh to say that there are certain towing operations that are gouging our citizens and I think we need to close that loop hole,” Strausburg said, providing the formation of a fee schedule as a solution.

Councilwoman Stevie Prettyman pointed out one other loop hole to be closed is the tow company has the right to dispose of the car after 10 days.

“People out there who are actually making a business of that, that have absolutely no intention of storing the car, they can get a minimum for any car of $400 in scrap value and it is just preying upon people by any means and it is just unconscionable to me,” Strausburg said.

The council had before them the City of Salisbury’s tow ordinance as well as Ocean City’s.

“I was looking at theirs intending that we would probably track their language to suit the county,” he said. “It is well thought out and they spent a lot of time on it, and they did a good job with it. This is just to get this on the table. This isn’t the biggest issue the county has, but it is pretty important issue to certain people.”

Council President Joe Holloway noticed a couple of items that he would like to see different in the county’s version of the tow law, such as two weeks is not enough time to reclaim a vehicle, especially if a person is in the hospital or just doesn’t have the money. The other item was that the city requires a tow company to be called from a rotating list of companies who register to be a police tow.

“If there is a car on the side of the road, there is really nothing you can do about it, but if a person is in a fender bender or minor collision they have a choice of who they have tow their car,” Joe Holloway said.

Councilwoman Gail Bartkovich pointed out that many people are part of a membership that provides a tow service as part of their warranty.

The council came to a consensus to have staff form a tow ordinance using the City of Salisbury and Ocean City as an example to return will a proposed law.

“The first issue you have addressed, and that is the council has an appetite to do something,” Council Administrator Matt Creamer said.

Last February, after two years of refining a towing ordinance concerning police tows, or calls for a tow service by the police department, the City of Salisbury voted unanimously to pass the law defining a schedule of fees and charges applicable to vehicles towed as dispatched by the police department.

The licensing fees is $75 for owner/applicant filing fee per license and with application,  owner/applicant initial licensing fee with approved of application, and  an annual owner/applicant license renewal fee.

The maximum towing and storage fees are $160 for an accident vehicle tow, $80 for a disabled vehicle tow and an emergency relocation tow, and $135 for a impound vehicle tow.

Other fees include standby/waiting time billed in 15 minute increments after 16 minute wait for $65, winching of a vehicle is $110, storage of a vehicle beginning at 12:01 am following the tow is $50, an administrative fee for accidents and impounds only is $30, if there is a snow emergency plan in effect there can be $30 charged, and the release fee for a vehicle for afterhours only at the towers discretion is $55.