OCEAN CITY — Resort officials did an apparent about-face this week and decided to stay in the towing business with the requested increase in fees after an impassioned plea from a couple of different sources to maintain the current policy.
Back in October, a unified private-sector towing industry approached the town’s 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 towing companies that work in partnership with the town were seeking a graduated, across-the-board hike by as much as 100 percent in some cases.
For example, the current rate for a standard tow in Ocean City is $150. The companies tow vehicles when requested by private property owners, such as restaurants, hotels and condominiums, for example, and take them to the town’s impound lot at the public works campus at 65th Street. Those whose vehicles were towed then go to 65th Street, pay the requisite fees and fines and collect their vehicles. The town collects the fees, keeps its portion and remits the lion’s share to the tow companies.
It’s slightly more complicated for police-involved tows for accidents or DWI arrests, for example, or in cases where a second truck or other equipment is needed, but in terms of the basic daily tow from private property, the current maximum fee is set at $150. The tow companies were seeking an increase to $250 for a basic tow, with $50 held by the town and $200 remitted to the companies.
It’s important to note despite the proposed increase by 100 percent, the $250 rate for a basic tow proposed in Ocean City would still be lower than the rates charged in neighboring jurisdictions. A survey of the rates in Worcester County at large, and in places such as Ocean Pines and Berlin, for example, revealed the standard tow rate averages $300. Also important is the daily storage rate at the town’s impound lot. Currently, the storage fee is $10 for the first day and $15 for each additional day. The proposal on the table this week called for raising the daily storage fee to $40 and became the subject of considerable debate on Tuesday.
Earlier this month, the Mayor and Council had before it the proposed tow rate increases recommended by the police commission, but the discussion was tabled when it was deemed appropriate to compare Ocean City’s towing ordinance with the existing state ordinance. That discussion led to a larger debate on whether the town should remain in the towing business at all.
With a planned major expansion and renovation of the town’s public works campus at 65th Street along with the Public Safety Building and other facilities, the question was raised if there would be space remaining for the existing town-owned and operated impound lot. The towing increase issue was back on the agenda at Tuesday’s work session, and it appeared from later discussion the majority of the council was of the mindset to get out of the towing business altogether, but some strong comments from a variety of sources at the outset of the meeting reversed the course.
Compelling Case For
Retaining Status Quo
During the public comment period at the beginning of the meeting, Delmarva Condominium Managers Association President Joe Groves told the Mayor and Council members of the association emphatically wanted to maintain the status quo with the current towing and impound lot policy. Groves said he polled the members, who unanimously wanted the town to retain the impound lot at 65th Street even if it meant raising the current tow rates.
“The overall consensus, all 47 emails, is they don’t want to see changes to this policy,” he said. “It’s a great management tool for us. It works if you have the impound lot here on the island.”
During the debate earlier this month, resort officials raised concerns about the image of the town being involved in the towing business in the first place, never mind raising the fees. The feeling was people were resenting writing a check to the town to get their vehicle out of the impound lot, but Groves pointed out the private property owners are on the front lines of that resentment.
“It’s going to be an absolute PR nightmare, not just for us but for the town of Ocean City if you start moving it off the island and taking it to other places,” he said. “People get upset when they have to write a check to the town of Ocean City, but they’re really upset with the manager of that building or that property.”
Groves pointed out the current towing policy including the on-island impound lot was the only hammer for private property owners including the high-rise condos for policing their own parking lots.
“It’s a management tool for us,” he said. “Every high-rise in this town makes a lot of money in parking. Every high-rise charges people to park there for the week. Our management tool is to be able to tow that vehicle off the parking lot if they don’t pay. It’s rarity that we have to do it, but it happens.”
Perhaps the larger issue is the logistics involved in potentially moving the impound lot out of the 65th Street area and off the island somewhere. Groves pointed out in most cases, when someone is towed they can make arrangements to get to 65th Street, pay the fees and retrieve their vehicle within an hour or so. If the impound lot was moved to Berlin, for example, those times would be doubled or tripled in the summer, causing more angst and resentment for tourists and greater headaches for the tow companies.
“Another issue is the time,” he said. “If we’re not going to have the impound lot here on the island and a tow truck has to take somebody to Berlin in the middle of the summer across Route 90 or Route 50, you can forget about response times. It will take them three to four hours just to get back to Ocean City.”
Chris Cropper of Cropper Towing in Berlin agreed moving the impound lot off the island was not in the best interest of those being towed, the towing companies and the town.
“It’s going to be a major burden on us to have to tow outside Ocean City,” he said. “We have to think of the business owners. If you have a restaurant or a hotel and you want a vehicle removed, it’s taking us an hour to an hour-and-a-half now with summer traffic. If we have to go across the bridge, it will take twice that long, which will be a major burden to us and not cost-effective for us or the taxpayers.”
Cropper agreed doubling or tripling the time it takes for someone to retrieve their towed vehicle would only increase the resentment.
“If a person has their vehicle towed, they’re upset,” he said. “It’s a convenience for that person once their vehicle gets towed to ride the city bus for $2 to get their vehicle with an hour-and-a-half turnaround time. Now, they would have to take a taxi or an Uber or whatever to Berlin, which will cost $20 to $30 and it will take three to four hours just to get there depending on the time of day. Then they still have to fight traffic getting back. Now, they’re really going to be mad.”
Of course, the larger issue is where to place the impound lot if there is no longer adequate space for it when the public works campus is expanded and renovated. Cropper acknowledged the tight situation at 65th Street, but said there could be alternatives on the island.
“I understand the situation at 65th Street,” he said. “That’s the hub and you need all the space there you can get, but I’ve been checking around and there are plenty of places in town to put an impound lot or even multiple impound lots.”
Council Reverses Course
Comments from various council members made it clear the elected officials came into Tuesday’s meeting strongly considering moving the impound lot off the island and perhaps getting out of the towing business altogether, but it quickly became apparent the strong comments by Groves and Cropper helped reverse that decision.
“I think it’s pretty clear we need to stay in the towing business for now and keep the impound lot,” said Councilman John Gehrig. “If we’re going to stay in the business, we need to cover our costs. I think we need to go to $300 for the basic tow with $200 to the tow companies and $100 to the city. I also think we need to increase the daily storage rate to $50.”
Councilman Wayne Hartman also said he was swayed by the compelling comments from Groves and Cropper.
“When I came in here today, I thought I had an idea what the town should do,” he said. “The losses showing at the impound lot concern me, but I think it’s a no brainer to move forward as it is this year.”
Council Secretary Mary Knight also said she came into Tuesday’s meeting with a different mindset, but was convinced to retain the status quo after hearing the testimony.
“I came in here with a totally different idea also,” she said. “Mr. Groves and Mr. Cropper put it all in perspective. To hear those comments tells me we really need to stay in the tow business. We have a year to come up with something because we’re running out of land on the island.”
Councilman Dennis Dare said he was essentially in favor of the town phasing out of the towing business in the long run, but also changed his mind.
“I came in thinking this should be in the private sector, but with the information Mr. Cropper provided about the turnaround times, it makes sense for us to continue with what we’re doing now,” he said. “It’s something to look at. Maybe an impound lot can be franchised, maybe somebody has the space for an impound lot and we can find an alternative.”
Towing Rates To Jump
After considerable debate about the location of the impound lot, the potential turnaround times if the lot is moved off the island and the impact on the private property owners, the Mayor and Council returned to the debate about the fee increases. Again, the rate schedule is somewhat complicated with different fees for a standard tow from private property to accident and DWI tows and from tows involving a second tow truck or other equipment to tows of larger vehicles, but boiled down to its simplest terms, the proposal on the table was to raise the fee for a standard tow from the current $150 to $250, with $200 going to the tow companies and $50 going to the town.
The proposed $250 standard tow fee would still fall below the average of $300 in the neighboring communities, but would represent a significant increase for the tow companies and the town. However, Gehrig voiced concern the increases might not go far enough.
“I just think we’re leaving too much money on the table,” he said. “All of our neighbors are charging $300 for a basic tow. The proposal is for $250 with $50 going to the town. I think we should go to $300 with $100 to the town. As far as the storage fee, Ocean Pines, Berlin, Snow Hill are all $50 per day. I have no idea why we would want to go less than that.”
Gehrig also suggested raising the storage fee for towed vehicles at the impound lot. Currently, the fee is $10 for the first day and $15 for each additional day. It’s important to note the fees are based on calendar days and not 24-hour periods. For example, if a vehicle was towed at 11 p.m. and not picked up until the next morning, the individual would be charged for two days. Nonetheless, Hartman said based on what other jurisdictions were charging for storage fees and the costs associated with operating the impound lot, Ocean City’s fees should be raised in kind.
“The $10 per day storage fee at the impound lot makes it the cheapest place in town to park,” Gehrig said. “Whether you’re selling cheeseburgers or T-shirts or whatever, the market sets the price. I just don’t know why we would have our storage fee less than our neighbors when the market sets the price.”
Mayor Rick Meehan voiced concern raising the storage fees on top of raising the tow fees could only exacerbate the resentment for those being towed and reminded the council Ocean City is supposed to be a tourist-friendly, hospitable town.
“My only concern is the storage fee, especially the first-day storage fee,” he said. “We’re talking about going from $10 to $50. If someone gets their car towed and gets it within a couple of hours, that’s a lot of money. I think $50 is a little high. We are a tourist community and we have to be hospitable and take that into consideration.”
After considerable debate, the council voted unanimously to follow the police commission’s recommendation to raise the towing rates that had remained stagnant for nearly 10 years including the increase to $250 for the standard tow. In addition, the storage fee will be raised to a straight $40 per day. For now, the town will continue to operate the impound lot at the 65th Street campus with a plan to revisit the issue when the larger renovation and expansion gets underway likely next fall.