Beaufort News

Towing companies tell county panel regulation is not needed

Beaufort County officials and about 10 towing company representatives met Monday to debate the merits of proposed tow-truck regulation-- including a cap on fees.

The county's Public Safety Committee considered a draft ordinance based on similar regulation in Horry County.

"This was meant to start discussion," said county attorney Lad Howell. "This is not the one we're going to pass."

Included in the draft is a maximum fee schedule, which Howell said was created by averaging what area towing companies currently charge for services.

Howell said the county sent letters to 38 wrecking companies to notify them the ordinance is being considered.

Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner told the committee members that many of the items in the draft ordinance already are covered under state law.

"I think the only thing that you really should concentrate on in this process is trying to establish some fair fees among the companies that are licensed by the county," Tanner said. "I mean, it should be a one-pager."

He added that the county's goal should be to defuse conflicts between tow-truck drivers and residents.

"The heart of the problem is when a wrecker shows up to tow a car, and the owner comes out about the same time it's being hooked up, there's going to be a dispute right then and there. And the best thing we can do is try to limit the dispute by having a fair fee," Tanner said.

Tanner said the county also should require wider streets when considering developments like Edgefield.

"The roads out there should never have been allowed to be that narrow," Tanner said. "Stuff like that creates what we're dealing with now."

Interest in tow-truck regulation stems from a violent confrontation between a wrecker driver and a resident on Christmas Eve.

Preston Ryan Oates, 27, put an immobilizing wheel boot on a minivan parked on the street in the Edgefield neighborhood outside Bluffton that night. Carlos Alberto Olivera, 34, asked Oates to remove the boot, saying the van had only been parked there for a few minutes. Oates said he would remove the boot for $300. Both men were armed, and when the argument escalated, Oates shot Olivera six times, killing him, according to Solicitor Duffie Stone.

Oates faces charges of manslaughter and a weapons violation.

Tanner called the $300 fee requested by Oates "ridiculous."

"Those fees aren't fair," Tanner said. "It's not even realistic that someone would ask for that kind of money to remove a boot."

Several tow-truck operators said that wheel-immobilizing boots are counterproductive and not used by their companies.

Dan Neighbors, a tow truck driver with Auto Care Center in Beaufort, opposes fee caps.

"I do not think that you guys should regulate what we charge," Neighbors said. "If there is a dispute, we should let the courts handle it. It should not be regulated by a bunch of people in a room who don't know anything about driving truck."

He said time and labor from job to job vary significantly and every scenario can't be codified.

"It's almost impossible to do that because every tow is different," Neighbors said. "I did one tow where the vehicle was in a ditch upside down. And I did one the other night where the guy had driven his vehicle into the side of a building."

Tony Gurganious, owner of Gur's Automotive Center in Beaufort, said maybe the county could set a base fee with the possibility of additional charges.

"If there are other things we have to do, that should maybe be an add-on," he said.

For example, towing from saltwater could result in an extra fee, since the cable must be replaced afterward.

"As every tow truck driver here knows, if saltwater gets in a cable, it's done," Gurganious said.

Howell said tows from private property are the main problem, and towing wrecked vehicles could be exempt from the county ordinance.

The committee will revisit the proposed ordinance at a later date.