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Some Gainesville wrecker companies can charge more when called by police

POSTED: May 24, 2008 5:00 a.m.
Scott Rogers/The Times

A-1 Towing's Loring Dobbins loads a vehicle onto his truck Monday afternoon while working a wreck on Industrial Boulevard. Gainesville City Council approved a policy that regulates what wrecker companies the police can call when they pick up cars and determines the fees those wrecker companies can charge when they pick up vehicles at the city's direction.

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Getting in a wreck in Gainesville just isn’t what it used to be.

A recently revised ordinance allows wrecker companies to charge more than they have in the past when the police department calls them to the scene of an accident, to pick up an abandoned car or the vehicle of someone who has been arrested.

Gainesville police Capt. Chad White said the changes in the ordinance, passed by the Gainesville City Council last week, were long overdue.

"We’ve already had an ordinance in play, but it hasn’t been updated in many years," he said.

Both White and the owners of some of the wrecker companies the police department relies on to respond to its calls say fuel costs are one of the main reasons the changes were necessary.

Monday, diesel prices in Gainesville were as high as $4.29 a gallon, and the old ordinance did not allow for higher fuel costs or the extra work it takes to respond to city police calls, said Keith Chandler, co-owner of A-1 Towing and Wrecker Service.

"We’re used to doing it for a lot less," Chandler said. "With (diesel) fuel going up to $4.30, every little bit helps. The increase is kind of necessary, because you’ve got help you’ve got to pay."

The ordinance only applies to the nine wrecker companies that take turns with the responsibilities of cleaning up the scenes of automobile accidents, removing abandoned vehicles and towing those of people who have been arrested in traffic stops.

The set fees — $100 for moving an undamaged car, truck or van and $200 for a damaged one and $25 more for motorcycles — only apply when the wrecker companies respond to city calls. Other times, the companies charge at their own discretion.

Don Kerns, owner of Don Kerns Wrecker Service, said he usually charges between $65 and $75 when he is not towing vehicles for the police department. But Kerns says the price difference between regular calls and police calls comes with the amount of work involved in towing for the police department.

"There’s more to it than a truck hooking to something and moving it," Kerns said. "You’re not through with just pulling it off the lot."

The variety of calls the companies get from the police department often involve a little more effort than calls from regular customers.

"A lot of times, city calls are more aggravating, because you don’t know who you’re dealing with," Chandler said. "Every situation’s different."

"The DUI and druggers sometimes give you a little harder time," Kerns said. "They’re irate when they come. They done got pinched, and they’re mad at the world."

Other than the attitudes the police department clientele may sometimes bring, picking up vehicles for the city involves more paperwork.

Each police call requires the wrecker companies to fill out an incident report. When vehicles are abandoned or the police do not provide any information about the owner of a vehicle the wreckers tow, the companies are left with the responsibility of tracking down the owner within three days.

Usually, owners of the wrecker companies have to run vehicle identification numbers in county and state databases to find the owner of the vehicle and the lien holder. Then, the owners have to send a certified letter, which usually costs about $3 or $4, to both the lien holder and the owner, to let them know where the vehicle is.

The revised ordinance allows the listed wrecker companies to charge $75 for these "administrative costs" they incur on city police calls.

"You have to charge a little more, because by the time ... you go to the post office and pay to get them certified and mailed, you pay gas two ways," Chandler said. "You’ve got a little more man time, so you have to charge a little extra."

Along with the pay increase, however, come more rules for the police-chosen wrecker companies to follow.

Tucked in the ordinance is a long list of offenses — from illegal possession of alcohol to child molestation — that the owners of wrecker companies on the list or their drivers must never have committed.

In order to remain on the list, the drivers and owners must also not have been convicted of a smaller list of offenses, such as driving without insurance and driving under the influence, in the past five years.

The new ordinance requires all nine companies on the police rotation to submit to checks of the owners’ and drivers’ criminal histories.

"We just want to ensure that when we turn drivers over ... there’s a person of good standing there," White said.

The requirements are not a nuisance or an intrusion to Chandler or Kerns, though.

"That’s just to kind of protect the people who own the cars," Chandler said. "That’s for their protection. You wouldn’t want somebody who’s known to steal in your car."

Both men say they already check their drivers’ criminal histories before hiring them and subject their employees to drug tests.

"I’d rather find out something’s wrong here than I (would) on the road," Kerns said.



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