Focus towing ordinance on issue to be addressed

Beaufort County officials should not be discouraged by the initial negative reaction to proposed towing regulations.

Instead, they should focus their efforts on the issue that needs to be addressed: Regulating towing done to enforce parking rules in private communities.

We need rules that set out due process for people whose vehicles have been towed from private property. The rules should take into account the costs for tow truck operators, but should not allow them to exploit a captive market.

Right now, a vehicle owner has no recourse. The vehicle is gone, and if the owner doesn't pay up -- no matter how onerous or unreasonable the fee -- he won't get the vehicle back.

The regulations also should allow owners to get back their vehicles as quickly as possible. Towing companies shouldn't run up storage fees by manipulating the hours a driver can retrieve a vehicle.

The rules should allow owners to pay lower fees if they arrive before the vehicle is hooked up to a tow truck or before the vehicle is hauled away. If the goal is to keep private streets from being blocked, getting the driver to move the vehicle accomplishes that and paying a fee is a deterrent from repeating the offense.

The draft ordinance reviewed by Beaufort County Council's Public Safety Committee is an all-encompassing measure, and Sheriff P.J. Tanner is right that it duplicates some aspects of state law.

County attorney Lad Howell said it was a starting point for discussion.

The county got off on the right foot by making sure towing companies in the county were individually notified of the ordinance-writing effort.

Tow truck operators at last week's meeting complained that the caps on fees didn't take into account special circumstances and costs they sometimes encounter, such as hauling vehicles from salt water.

But recovering wrecks at the request of police or a vehicle owner is not the situation that needs to be addressed. The caps on fees should apply when a vehicle is being towed for parking where prohibited on private property. The ordinance should be clear on that.

We also note that the fee schedule in the draft ordinance is much higher than the fees listed in the Horry County ordinance on which it was modeled.

Under the Horry County ordinance, the most that can be charged is $175 if a heavy wrecker is used; $85 to $160 if a carrier or light wrecker is used. If an owner shows up before the vehicle is attached to the tow truck, the operator can charge no more than $25 during normal business hours and $35 after hours. If the vehicle is attached to the tow truck when the owner arrives, the tow truck operator can charge just half the applicable rate.

Beaufort County's draft schedule of fees calls for a maximum fee of $500 for a heavy wrecker and $300 for a light wrecker or carrier. If an owner shows up before the vehicle is attached to the tow truck, the operator could charge up to $75. If the vehicle is attached to the truck, the charge is capped at $150 or half the applicable rate.

That's a big difference in fees between the two ordinances. Howell said the fee schedule came from averaging what area towing companies charge for services, but that doesn't seem adequate. Does it cost that much more to tow a vehicle in Beaufort County than in Horry County?

The draft ordinance contains some good provisions, such as requiring towing contracts for private property to be filed with the Sheriff's Office and signed authorization forms that include information on the particular vehicle to be towed. The authorization forms would be a way to keep the hiring party aware of what tow operators were doing in a community.

Clearly, the draft is only a first step and a lot of work remains, but communities across the country have come up with ordinances to address predatory towing. We can do it, too.