Long after the city was put on notice, its towing policies remain a disaster. Not only is the system subject to criminal manipulation, but it is expensive, complicated and, judging by the city’s own records, unfair.
Some of that may be about to change. City Comptroller Mark J.F. Schroeder said that after a critical audit by his office, the city has begun the process of seeking bids for towing work, a change that could impose order on chaos while also – not insignificantly – putting it on the right side of state law. The city has also made other changes, not all of them for the better.
The clearest evidence of the need for reform, as reported in a recent two-part series in The News, is the violence that has become part and parcel of a cutthroat business. One tow truck driver reported being threatened with a knife last year at a crash scene. Another driver, Corddaryl Henley, reported being threatened with a gun. The next day, he was shot and killed after dropping off a vehicle.
It has been a free-for-all, and one that has disproportionately benefited one company, Riverside Towing & Recovery. The South Buffalo company was one of five private firms towing vehicles between 2006 and 2012, but it received 60 percent of the money paid out.
Owner William “Bill” O’Connell said that’s because he works harder. That may be true, but something is amiss when one company gets so much of the work.
Aggravating the system further is the city’s nightmare policy of requiring all cars to be towed to the city’s impound lot, where it charges $25 a day for storage.
Here’s what that meant to one driver:
Mike Hopkins, 25, recently got into an accident near the Elmwood Village. A police officer wouldn’t let him drive to a legal parking space, after which he could have called his own tow truck. Instead, the officer deemed the car not drivable because of leaking fluid, and a city tow truck took the car to the city impound lot. Hopkins had to wait two days for the lot to reopen, costing him a total of $140 – $90 for the tow and $50 for two days of storage.
The city says it charges less than other lots and insists this system creates control and predictability. It may do that, but the city has no business being in the profit-making car storage business. The city should charge motorists what it costs the city to impound cars. But the city booked $1.1 million in impound revenue for the year ending June 30.
The solution is to bid out the work – which the city is doing – and to include performance standards in the ensuing contract: fast response time, appropriate handling of cars, safe storage at a reasonable rate, acceptable customer service and a cancellation clause for those that don’t comply. The city can award a contract to one or more companies. That’s the way to instill order on this reckless system and to ensure that the unscrupulous tow truck drivers the city warns about don’t get their hooks into motorists who are already stressed.
Police investigations are continuing into potential criminal activities surrounding towing. One truck operator, James Mazzariello, says there been a long-standing, systematic shakedown of tow truck operators by police. A police officer suspected of taking bribes from tow truck operators recently killed himself. The city has approached federal authorities about bribery allegations. The murder of Corddaryl Henley remains unsolved. All in all, it’s a cesspool.
It seems certain that more shoes will be dropping in this matter, especially if Mazzariello’s allegations are true. In the meantime, the city should move faster on soliciting new bids and signing contracts that create order and fairness for unlucky drivers and tow truck operators, alike.