March 29, 1998 in Idaho

Tow Firms Pull Together They Oppose County’s Plan To End Rotation And Call Just One Company

By The Spokesman-Review
 

A plan to award Kootenai County’s emergency towing contract to one company has area tow-truck drivers preparing for a showdown with commissioners.

Local towing companies predicted the resulting “monopoly” will drive rates up. Many are calling the plan illegal.

Several towers have hired a Knoxville, Tenn., attorney who specializes in towing issues to draft a letter demanding that sheriff’s deputies continue distributing business on a rotating basis.

“If one towing company gets hold of this they’re going to take control of the cost of towing,” said Kay Jones, who owns Silver Lake Auto Body and Paint with her husband, Oneal. “It’s going to have an impact on the community.”

Commissioners are expected to award the yearlong contract during their Tuesday meeting. A letter recently sent to the North Idaho Towing and Recovery Organization’s 14 members notified them the chosen company will assume all county towing beginning April 15.

Under the plan, one company would tow all vehicles in cases when the owner does not request a specific company.

County officials said several problems with the current system, which handled nearly 900 calls last year, are forcing them to drop the rotation. The worst is bickering among towing companies.

The sheriff’s department has fielded several complaints from tow companies about being skipped in the rotation, said Dennis Molenaar, county attorney. Towers also have accused competitors of handing out business cards to deputies who they hoped might steer customers to “preferred” companies.

Customers have complained about being overcharged. In one case, a person was charged an “attitude adjustment fee” for every time he swore, Molenaar said.

Deputies, in turn, are frustrated by long response times from towing companies, officials said.

“I just want my deputies to be able to say, ‘Send me a tow truck’ and have a tow truck arrive in a reasonable amount of time,” sheriff’s Capt. Ben Wolfinger said.

A one-number dispatch system organized more than a year ago and operated by 14 towing companies was supposed to send trucks quicker and more efficiently. Under the system, 911 dispatchers relay a deputy’s request for a tow truck to an operator working for all the companies, who then sends the next driver on the list.

Most believed the system would save dispatchers the burden of calling several different companies before finding an available truck and prevent drivers from being skipped.

However, county officials said, several of the problems persisted.

Three new companies began complaining to commissioners that they were being denied entry into the organization and the county rotation. Although members of the tow organization dispute the new companies’ claims, Tri-State Towing, Post Falls Towing and Body By Scotty Towing told commissioners their applications were rejected without justification.

“That was the beginning of the end,” Molenaar said.

Commissioners began accepting proposals from towing companies in February. A handful of finalists who meet all of the county’s equipment, insurance and storage yard requirements remain, Molenaar said.

Of those, a single company or one that also proposes using subcontractors will be chosen, county officials said. Either way, the company dubbed the primary contractor will be responsible for ensuring the quality of service is maintained.

Companies also have submitted towing rates as part of their proposals, in hopes of keeping prices competitive.

“We’ve got to try something to make it work better than it has,” said Lt. Skip Rapp, who coordinated towing service for the sheriff’s department.

Towers said a single towing company will ensure only that customers will suffer. Moreover, the county’s towing needs are too great for one company to handle, they said.

Several drivers plan to fight the plan as an unfair business practice.

“If your company is qualified and can respond in a reasonable amount of time, it should be allowed to receive calls on an equal basis with every other qualified towing company,” attorney Michael P. McGovern wrote in a March 14 letter to Rainbow Towing owner Pam McCall.

McGovern was trying a case in California last week and could not be reached for comment.

Local towers said the blame for most problems - which they called minor - falls with 911 dispatchers and an unwillingness by the sheriff’s department to enforce any minimum towing standards.

Occasional slow response times have been caused by bad directions from dispatchers, drivers said. Confusion in the dispatch center over which company is next in line resulted in drivers being skipped, towers said.

Still, they said, they consider those problems to be solvable. Any major problems with the system were never relayed to them, they said.

“There’s no communication,” said Bill Sutton, owner of Sutton’s Towing.”There never has been. There’s been innuendo.”

Others said towers as a group should not be held responsible for one or two companies causing problems.

“If you have one bad apple you don’t throw away the whole barrel,” Rainbow’s McCall said. “You pull the apple out.”

Returning to a 911-dispatched rotation and setting standards enforced by the sheriff’s department is the best solution, towers agreed.

They point to the successful use of a rotation system by the Post Falls Police Department and Idaho State Police.

“It’s a practice that’s worked for a long, long time,” Post Falls police Sgt. Pat Kenner said of the city’s rotation policy. “We’ve never had a problem with it.”

Post Falls, which requests 100-150 tows a year, includes minimums for response time, equipment and insurance among its policy requirements. Companies that do not meet those standards are left off the rotation list.

“The thing I can’t figure out is Post Falls city is on their own 911 rotation and it seems to work just fine,” said Sam Tipton, Tri-State Towing general manager. “I can’t figure out why the county’s won’t work.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

MEMO: Two sidebars appeared with the story:

1. What’s next

Kootenai County commissioners are expected to award the yearlong emergency towing contract during their Tuesday meeting. A letter recently sent to the North Idaho Towing and Recovery Organization’s 14 members notified them the chosen company will assume all county towing beginning April 15.

2. Tow truck tiff gets hot and heavy

COEUR d’ALENE

Tow companies appear to be fighting among themselves while feuding with Kootenai County.

Accusations of prank phone calls, slashed tires and kickbacks paid by body shops to towing companies are bandied about.

Others suspect that a couple of tow drivers give out stacks of business cards to deputies, hoping they will pass them along to stranded motorists.

Few drivers talk publicly about such practices, but most believe they go on. They all downplayed the significance of the bickering, saying it does not affect quality of service.

“We all have a tendency to get along, but then again, it is business,” said Sam Tipton, Tri-State Towing general manager. “The market is flooded.”

However, in an undated letter to county commissioners, Chet Lewis, Tri-State Towing co-owner, offered a glimpse at how fierce he believes the competition can get. Tri-State applied to become a member of North Idaho Towing and Recovery Organization, but was rejected.

“I’ve had tires slashed, trucks blocked, drivers threatened, prank calls, and other forms of harassment,” Lewis wrote.

County officials confirm they have received other complaints. They said accusations of certain companies receiving preferential treatment are unfounded.

Unless a vehicle owner has a preference, tow companies are called if it is their turn on the list, sheriff’s officials said.

Towers also dismissed the griping. They attribute it to competitors venting frustration.

“The county never suffered on the service we provided because of any in-house fighting,” said Oneal Jones, owner of Silver Lake Auto Body and Paint, which also provides towing service.

Added Rainbow Towing owner Pam McCall:

“This whole thing has given us a black eye that’s unwarranted.”

- By Brian Coddington

Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. What’s next Kootenai County commissioners are expected to award the yearlong emergency towing contract during their Tuesday meeting. A letter recently sent to the North Idaho Towing and Recovery Organization’s 14 members notified them the chosen company will assume all county towing beginning April 15.

2. Tow truck tiff gets hot and heavy COEUR d’ALENE Tow companies appear to be fighting among themselves while feuding with Kootenai County. Accusations of prank phone calls, slashed tires and kickbacks paid by body shops to towing companies are bandied about. Others suspect that a couple of tow drivers give out stacks of business cards to deputies, hoping they will pass them along to stranded motorists. Few drivers talk publicly about such practices, but most believe they go on. They all downplayed the significance of the bickering, saying it does not affect quality of service. “We all have a tendency to get along, but then again, it is business,” said Sam Tipton, Tri-State Towing general manager. “The market is flooded.” However, in an undated letter to county commissioners, Chet Lewis, Tri-State Towing co-owner, offered a glimpse at how fierce he believes the competition can get. Tri-State applied to become a member of North Idaho Towing and Recovery Organization, but was rejected. “I’ve had tires slashed, trucks blocked, drivers threatened, prank calls, and other forms of harassment,” Lewis wrote. County officials confirm they have received other complaints. They said accusations of certain companies receiving preferential treatment are unfounded. Unless a vehicle owner has a preference, tow companies are called if it is their turn on the list, sheriff’s officials said. Towers also dismissed the griping. They attribute it to competitors venting frustration. “The county never suffered on the service we provided because of any in-house fighting,” said Oneal Jones, owner of Silver Lake Auto Body and Paint, which also provides towing service. Added Rainbow Towing owner Pam McCall: “This whole thing has given us a black eye that’s unwarranted.” - By Brian Coddington


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