OCEAN CITY- A discussion on Tuesday about potentially increasing the towing rates in Ocean City quickly spun around to a larger debate about whether the resort should remain in the towing business at all.
Back in October, a unified group of towing industry representatives approached the Ocean City Police Commission about a proposed across-the-board rate increase in the fee schedule that has been in place for nearly a decade. The town’s code currently sets the maximum rate for a standard tow at $150, a figure that has remained unchanged since 2008, but the local tow companies that work with the town are seeking a graduated, across-the-board hike by as much as 100 percent in some cases.
When the issue was brought before the Police Commission last fall, it was decided to take a closer look at what neighboring jurisdictions in Worcester were doing with their tow rates. What was determined is all of the other jurisdictions in the county follow the state law in terms of setting their towing fees. Ocean City is the only jurisdiction in the county with a towing ordinance on the books, Ocean City Police Department Chief Ross Buzzuro told the Mayor and Council on Tuesday.
“The OCPD was tasked with doing the research on neighboring communities in Worcester County and we looked at the Maryland State Police, Worcester County Sheriff’s Office, Berlin, Snow Hill and Ocean Pines,” he said. “What we found was the fees charged by those agencies were considerably higher than what we charge. Our ordinance was written in 2008, so the ordinance you have before you has been in place almost 10 years.”
Under the current situation, vehicles towed for a variety of reasons including being illegally parked on private property, accidents and breakdowns, and even DWI arrests are towed by private companies and take to the city-owned and operated impound lots. When individuals claim their vehicles from the impound lot, they pay the appropriate fees to the city, which then remits a large percentage back to the individual companies that did the tows.
The local towing industry is recommending an across-the-board rate increase in Ocean City, which would bring the fees more in line with what the rest of the county is doing. For example, a straight tow of an illegally parked vehicle would be increased from the current $150 allowed by the code to $250, which is still lower than the market rate in the other neighboring jurisdictions.
When a second tow truck is needed, the rate would increase from the current $75 to $150, and the rate for just moving a vehicle to the side of the road would increase from $75 to $100. The local tow companies are also seeking an increase in the storage fees. Under the current ordinance, the storage fee is $10 for the first day and $15 for each day thereafter. However, the changes requested by the towing companies would be a straight $60 per day if the vehicle is stored outside and $70 per day if the vehicle is stored inside.
Naturally, there are a variety of different towing scenarios, from a simple grab-and-go of a disabled vehicle or a vehicle illegally parked on a red curb or in front of a dumpster, for example, to DUI tows often in the middle of the night to more complicated accident tows that might require more than one tow truck or other types of equipment.
The towing companies’ recommendations include considerable hikes for the latter. For example, an accident tow would increase from the $150 allowed by the ordinance to the $325, while a DUI tow would increase from the current $150 to $285.
Some on the council questioned how Ocean City got in the tow business in the first place. City Solicitor Guy Ayres gave the council a brief primer on the history of the towing ordinance.
“This goes back to the early 1970s when there were people driving and parking all over private property,” he said. “They started towing them and there were complaints they were getting gouged. At the same time, there was a case in the District Court that came about because of a police tow on Philadelphia Avenue. In that case, the women couldn’t get her car back until she paid the fines. When the state seizes your property, your constitutional rights come into play.”
Ayres said after Ocean City adopted its tow ordinance, the state of Maryland followed suit years later. The language in both the state and local law are similar although there are some subtle differences. He said he was in the process of comparing the two ordinances in an effort to determine if the proposed fee increases had merit, but on the surface, it appears there is some room for increasing the fees that have been in place since 2008.
“The towing rates haven’t changed in years,” he said. “Meanwhile, the cost of vehicles went up, insurance went up, employee costs went up and that’s why you have this request before you. Whether the town should be in the business of putting signs up on private property, that seems like a different issue.”
Councilman John Gehrig said based on the fact there is a state law in place and every other jurisdiction and agency in Worcester County is using it, he thought it was time to consider doing away with the local ordinance.
“I don’t think we should be in the towing business at all,” he said. “I think the resources could be used better elsewhere. Other municipalities are using the state law and I’m in favor or repealing the ordinance.”
Councilman Wayne Hartman said the proposed fee increases and the larger debate about the future of the town’s towing ordinance should likely be considered separately. However, he did say most people that get towed while on vacation probably resent the city because it is on the front lines of the collection process.
“I think they are two separate issues,” he said. “The town of Ocean City impounds the vehicles and collects the fees and that leaves a bad taste in the mouths of the tourists. We’re viewed as the bad guys.”
Hartman agreed with Gehrig that it could be time to do away with the town’s towing ordinance altogether.
“It seems like there is a hole in our ordinance that needs to be filled,” he said. “Maybe, our ordinance needs to be repealed altogether.”
Councilman Dennis Dare agreed to a point, but also said it was late in the game for this season to consider repealing the ordinance.
“That being said, it we eliminate it now, all of those property owners would have to go get signs and put them up and I don’t think there is time to do that in advance of this season,” he said. “I think this is something we need to undertake and decide if we want to stay in the tow business.”
Council Secretary Mary Knight said the fee increases and the larger issue about the future of the towing industry needed to be kept separate.
“I think there are two separate issues,” she said. “I see the tow people in the back of the room and we’re hearing how the rates haven’t changed in years and they aren’t making any money. I would hate to see this not voted on.”
Gehrig said the town’s involvement in the otherwise private towing industry represented an overreach by local government.
“I hate anything that regulates private industry,” he said. “It’s like telling the hotels what they can charge. I think there really is a bigger discussion to be had on this.”
Hartman reiterated his point about Ocean City being viewed as the bad guy on the business end of the towing industry.
“If you have to write a check to the town of Ocean City, that’s where your frustration lies,” he said. “I don’t think we take any action on this right now.”
Gehrig, meanwhile, went back to his point about over-regulation.
“We don’t regulate the cost of crab cakes or cheesesteaks,” he said. “I think we hold off on this and deal with it all at one time and get it right the first time.”
Dare said the proposed fee increases for this summer season could be handled now and the larger issued debated later.
“If we abandon our current process, how do the thousands of parking lots in town change over by the season?” he said. “Let’s pass this and work with it while we figure out the larger issue. Let’s make the changes the city solicitor suggested and solve the larger issue later.”
With that said, it was decided to bring the issue back up during the next work session on March 28. In the meantime, Ayres will do a comparison of the city’s ordinance and the state’s ordinance.
“I feel much better with it coming back in two weeks,” said Knight. “I just didn’t want to hurt the guys in the back from the towing companies.”
Mayor Rick Meehan agreed the future of the towing industry was a larger debate.
“The town of Ocean City back in the 1970s was well ahead of the state on this issue,” he said. “We’re a host community and if they are unfortunate enough to get towed, we don’t want to hurt them or inconvenience them more than we have to. You don’t have to buy the crab cases and you don’t have to stay at the hotel, but if you get towed, you get towed. There are a lot of moving parts to this and I think we need to bring it back.”