Editorial: Towed Away

The March 24 Carbondale City Council agenda included a proposal to increase the cap on nonconsensual
Chris Wissmann

The March 24 Carbondale City Council agenda included a proposal to increase the cap on nonconsensual towing fees from $65 to $80 over two years. Discussion and action on the item was postponed, and at the April 14 meeting Mayor Don Monty said the proposal would probably come to the council Tuesday, April 28.

Regardless of when that happens, the council should vote no to any increases to nonconsensual towing fees.

Some things don’t change appreciably, so if longtime readers note strong similarities between the following and an August 2005 Nightlife column I wrote about this subject, I hope they’ll forgive the duplication.

To go back in time for a moment, the city began to regulate nonconsensual tows in 1997 after numerous complaints of abuses and gouging by towing companies. A man named Kevin Comiskey even became something of a local folk hero in November 1996 when he allegedly opened fire with a pellet gun on a tow-truck driver. (Lest anyone overly romanticize Comiskey, courthouse records indicate he was charged with three class-A misdemeanors— knowingly damaging property valued at less than $300, battery, and reckless conduct. According to the case file, he pled guilty to the first charge and paid $594.12 in court costs and restitution. He also received twenty-five hours of community service and underwent twelve months of supervision. The battery and reckless-conduct charges were dropped.)

Towing became a major issue during the 1997 city-council campaign and helped drive the record student turnout that swept a majority of student-friendly candidates onto the council. The city council then swiftly moved to cap fees at $55 per nonconsensual tow, $10 for vehicle storage after twenty-four hours, and $20 for interrupted tows.

Nevertheless, in August 2005, tow-truck operators, pleading poverty (but choosing not to do so in person, at the council meeting), convinced the city council, on which I then served, to increase the allowed towing fee to $65 by a six-to-one margin, with me in the minority.

I do appreciate tow-truck operators, and am grateful for those who so often helped take my broken-down cars to mechanics for repairs.

I even acknowledge that nonconsensual tows are ugly necessities. Businesses, including residential complexes, need towing services to keep parking spaces available for their customers or residents. Businesses on the Strip with private lots need those spaces for paying customers and employees, for example. If other motorists park in those lots, then walk to the SIU campus for six hours, for those six hours paying customers can’t use those parking spots, and that can severely hurt those businesses.

People who park with flagrant disregard for parking regulations, or even those who make honest mistakes, deserve to get towed. It’s happened to me, and while I wasn’t happy to walk out on the Strip at 2 a.m. to find my car missing, I understood why my car was towed— I didn’t pay attention to the hours during which parking was not allowed in that space— and I accepted it, paid the fee, and got my car back. (The next day, I called to arrange for the pickup of my car, was given a time to meet someone at the towing company, and arrived a little early. The employee got there ninety minutes late, and I missed most of a Chicago Bears game while sitting in a parking lot petting a filthy, mangy junkyard dog. That still makes me angry.)

Punishments should always fit the offenses, however, and $65 is too much money to charge for nonconsensual tows. There’s simply no way to justify an $80 fee.

While I argued that the $55 rate was far too high in 1997, and thus $65 was unwarranted in 2005, gasoline costs at that time admittedly had risen close to $3.15 per gallon, then likely a record high. Today, however, measured against inflation, gas prices are near record lows.

If fewer cars are getting towed these days, then tow-truck operators are likely suffering from the same crisis that has so severely hurt every other business in Carbondale, and that’s the decline in SIU enrollment— there are simply fewer students to tow. The overwhelming majority of complaints that I receive about nonconsensual tows, however, still come from SIU students, so low enrollment numbers are a problem to which towing companies have contributed. The city need not exacerbate the problem by authorizing a measure that will drive more unhappy students from SIU to other universities.

 

With $65 per nonconsensual tow an already more-than-sufficient punishment for private-lot parking violations, increasing the fee simply takes more money from the rest of Carbondale’s economy. This makes a fee increase bad for other Carbondale businesses. In fact, hopefully council members already believe the current rate is too high and will move on April 28 to reduce it to $55.