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Originally published April 7, 2012 at 8:06 PM | Page modified April 7, 2012 at 9:27 PM

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Tow-truck lobby puts hook on fee caps

The politicians rushing to outlaw exorbitant towing fees have been taken to school by the towing lobby, Danny Westneat reports.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Remember when our politicians were all foaming at the microphone to cap those gouging fees charged by the tow-truck industry?

That was right after Thanksgiving. The tale of an $800 tow bill prompted the Seattle mayor to say the city "must act to protect Seattleites from predatory towing charges." The City Council raced to one-up him, vowing to pass a new consumer law by the end of the first quarter.

The state Legislature shouldered them all aside. It debuted a bill to cap rates at a flat $250 for an impound plus the first day of storage.

Well, today is Easter. The first quarter is behind us. So what ended up happening with towing rates?

Nothing. The Legislature didn't pass a law. The city has yet to propose one. You can still be charged any amount the tow companies want. Every week I get another half-dozen or so towing horror stories, with budget-busting bills for simple tows of $500, $700 and higher.

When it comes to towing fees, we remain the wild, wild West.

What happened to all that political enthusiasm to cap them?

Maybe there was too much of it, says Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata — one of the ones who said there'd be a new law in town by now.

"I've never seen so many horses rush out of the gate and not have any make it to the finish line," he said.

The tow industry turned out to be a lot cannier than the political class.

Through savvy lobbying they blunted a proposal that could have strongly curtailed the most egregious charges for private-property impounds. They turned it into a murky, per-hour formula that wouldn't much affect how tow companies do business.

Example: Under the version of the bill that passed the state House, even that infamous $800 tow charge would have been only reduced to $747. In the final version that died in the state Senate, it would have been $690.

"It's true, it wouldn't have reduced towing fees much," said Al Runté, of Ibsen Towing in Bellevue, who lobbied for the Towing and Recovery Association of Washington. "We didn't bamboozle them. We just presented them with the facts."

This is why the towing industry ended up basically supporting a bill that had been designed to crack down on them.

Changes made to the bill also pitted Seattle against the state, touching off a local control struggle that slowed the bill in the regular legislative session's final days.

"We knew that in a short session, if it was touchy at all, then the bill wouldn't go," Runté said.

Either choice — squishy law or status quo — was a victory.

"From a PR standpoint, we were on the run a little bit there, so we're fine with how it turned out," Runté said. "The politicians all got their publicity and now they're hopefully moving on to solve real problems."

Ouch.

I'd like to pause from being taken to school by the towing lobby to point out that in New York City they have a flat-fee private impound charge of $125, with storage at $15 per day. So that $800 tow here? It would cost $140 there.

The other day, a reader showed me a Seattle tow bill for $1,200, with storage charged at a whopping $120 per day. Eight times the rate of New York, the most expensive city in America.

OK, back to school. Seattle officials say they still want to cap all this. But there's a wrinkle in that plan — namely, the towing lobby, which has started a fund to challenge Seattle in court.

Seems there's a clause in current law that if a city passes a towing ordinance, it must reference "applicable provisions" of state law. In other words, Seattle may not be able to cap tow rates unless the state first allows it. Which it hasn't.

Seattle officials disagree with this interpretation. But Runté, of the towing association, predicted this obscure language in state law will stop Seattle cold.

How are you sure, I asked? It's vague and dates to almost 30 years ago. Who knows what the Legislature meant by it.

"Well, I was there in Olympia when that clause was written," Runté says.

Class dismissed! Oh, and watch where you park, folks. Looks like it will be a while before you have any idea what a tow might cost you.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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