Five months after a tow truck driver was slain, prompting a change in Buffalo’s towing policy, a city audit shows one company had been receiving nearly 90 percent of the city’s private towing business. This is an ongoing problem that City Comptroller Mark J.F. Schroeder believes he knows how to fix while also putting the city on the right side of state law.
Before May, the city had no discernible policy regarding tow trucks. Tow truck drivers would race to the scene of an accident, hoping to get the towing work. It was like a feeding frenzy, said Robert Corsi of Chase Towing. “It’s like fighting for their food out there,” he told The Buffalo News.
The analogy is apt. Corsi reported at the time that he had been threatened with a knife at one crash scene and that another driver, Corddaryl Henley, reported being threatened with a gun by another driver. The next day, Henley was shot and killed after dropping off a vehicle.
Against that backdrop, and following a federal investigation into alleged bribes made to police personnel and the shooting of Henley, the city changed its policy.
In order to “add clarity and order” to the anarchy of towing, the city announced that it would henceforth allow only one towing company to respond to a crash scene, establish an authorized towing company list and create a weekly rotation among towing companies. The city also established a standard rate for towing.
Yet, Schroeder believes that is not enough. The wild west atmosphere may have been drained from the scene, but the city is not complying with a state law that would ensure that a fair system is in place.
The report shows that from January 2011 through March 2012, Riverside Towing and Recovery received 89 percent of city business among private contractors, or $89,810. Two other contractors, Jim Mazz Auto Inc. and South Buffalo Auto Parts, each had about $5,780 in business.
The audit had been under way for about a year, but was delayed by the firing of former city auditor Darryl McPherson. Parking Commissioner Kevin Helfer declined to address the matter except to note that Mayor Byron W. Brown was aware of the situation and was willing to discuss it with the Common Council, but only in a closed session. The reason for that is unclear, but if the mayor is already aware of the situation, it is possible city officials are already taking some action.
The city needs to straighten this problem out immediately and also inform the public about whether the new system continues to favor Riverside Towing and Recovery. It should also adopt Schroeder’s recommendation that the city seek new bids for towing services, based on a state law that requires contracts of more than $35,000 to be formally bid. That would fix the problem and, indeed, Schroeder says he will insist upon it.
Plainly, more clarity and order is in order, and not just on towing policy. Much of the system involving towing, storage and auto auction procedures has been rotten. Last year, the superintendent of the city’s fleet operation, John R. Womer, admitted stealing money from auctions of impounded cars.
There is no reason we know of that the city should wait on this. Towing services should be prompt, predictable, fair and, above all, safe.