After two years of frustration, being sued and having to toss out a botched bidding process, Mesa will again attempt to award lucrative towing contracts for the 10,000 tows that happen every year in the city.
And to avoid being sued again, the city plans to award the contracts though a lottery.
The random selection was an idea Vice Mayor Scott Somers threw out almost in jest as the Mesa City Council weighed options Thursday to create a bidding process. Through the discussion, council members reminded each other of how Mesa and several other cities have inadvertently triggered battles — and lawsuits — within the fiercely competitive towing industry.
Somers prefaced his idea by warning it might sound silly.
Mayor Scott Smith responded that he never considered the notion, but that it’s a common practice for the federal government. He quickly said he was enamored by the idea.
“Believe it or not, it’s not as crazy as it sounds,” Smith said.
Mesa doesn’t make any money from towing contracts. It awards contracts for four zones within the city to avoid having towing companies swarm in on accident scenes — and to ensure Mesa has qualified vendors who can clear wrecked vehicles quickly. Smith emphasized the city also wants to ensure companies don’t have unreasonable fees that take advantage of the public.
Mesa will now compile a list of minimum qualifications for bidders to compete in the lottery. That will include at least five tow trucks, a lot in Mesa or an adjacent county island, reference letters, financial capability, adequate staffing levels and the ability to respond within 25 minutes. The city has established prices, including a $30 flat tow fee, $17 per day for storage and a $3 per mile transit fee.
Somers raised concerns that the city was setting prices because companies might be able to provide service for less.
But the city had previously decided to not let towing companies offer prices because of a lawsuit that resulted from when the city started seeking new bids in 2010.
One bidder proposed charging no fee for its hourly cost or per-mile fee to take advantage of a formula Mesa used to rank competing bids. After the bids were submitted, Mesa changed its formula to avoid throwing its process into disarray. A losing company sued.
Mesa looked at fees in other cities and found some companies charged just a penny for things like a basic tow. But Smith said companies make up for that by charging more for other services and that a set fee avoids what the city has been through before.
“We couldn’t even understand the pricing of the bids,” he said.
Towing has been a longstanding headache for Mesa. The city awarded a contract to Cactus Towing after an acrimonious 2004 bidding process, and Cactus had complaints from car owners and insurance companies about excessive fees, theft from vehicles and needless delays in releasing vehicles. The Arizona Attorney General’s Office opened an investigation but no charges resulted.
Mesa will award one-year contracts for four zones, with a limit of two zones per company.
The city considered calling qualified companies on a rotation to support a larger number of small businesses in the community. But the council rejected the idea after police said that would increase paperwork and make it more confusing for the public to recover towed vehicles.
City Manager Chris Brady said the city will share the minimum qualifications with the towing industry to determine if there are any concerns before Mesa accepts any bids.
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