Pinal County tow truck owners say they will lose money under a new system that will cap rates they can charge when they haul cars for the sheriff’s office. Sheriff Paul Babeu said he implemented the new structure to increase fairness to the companies and the motorists.
It would put an end to price gouging and allow companies to make a reasonable profit, Babeu said.
“This contract is going to cause me severe financial harm if I work the contract or don’t work the contract,” said Gerry Prendergast, owner of Prendergast Towing in Florence.
The Tribune spoke with several other tow truck owners who declined to go on the record for fear of retribution, but their comments echoed Prendergast’s. Several others either declined comment at all or did not return calls.
The Sheriff’s Office will tow your car if you’re caught driving drunk, been in an accident, abandoned your car, or were caught driving without insurance.
Twenty-nine companies responded to requests from the county to enter into the new contracts, which take effect Oct. 1 upon the approval of the Board of Supervisors.
The approved companies will then work on a rotation within zones where their storage yards are located.
The contracts, which are modeled after contracts the Arizona Department of Public Safety offers its vendors, cap the rates for towing and storage.
Heather Murphy, Pinal County spokeswoman, said the rates are identical to the DPS rates. Several of the Pinal vendors are also under contract with DPS, she said.
The current system has 35 companies working on a rotation, but they are free to charge what they want.
Babeu said there were too many horror stories of motorists getting gouged for hundreds of dollars for simple tows and storage.
Businessman Chad Henry is one of them, Babeu said.
The Sheriff’s Office mistakenly identified his trailer as stolen while he was out of town in June 2008 and had it towed from his neighbor’s house.
It was a trailer he got in a smoking deal and he used it for his business.
The trailer had been stored seven or eight days and it would have cost $1,400, which was more than it was worth, to get it back, Henry said.
The tow owner then told him he could sign the title over to him or pay $3,500 if he abandoned it.
Some very large men came into the office and stood around him as he argued with the owner, Henry said.
“They really tried to intimidate me to get me to sign that over,” he said.
Henry abandoned it, but the county settled with him for $2,300.
“The complaints that the Sheriff’s Office claims it gets about towing prices are usually from the people who were arrested and hauled off to jail for whatever reason,” Prendergast said. “And it doesn’t matter what we charge them, it will still be too much because the tow trucks are always the villain.”
Prendergast, who donated money to Babeu’s campaign and campaigned for him, was recently suspended from towing for the county for 30 days for deceptive business practices in a dispute over whether he had the right to require a title to release a car.
The Sheriff’s Office contends he did that to get an extra day of storage out of a motorist, but Prendergast said he released the car after two hours after speaking with the lien holder.
Under the new contracts, storage charges will be no more than $20 per day for a standard automobile, $63 an hour for service and $3.50 a mile. Prendergast charges $45 a day for storage, $120 an hour and $4 per mile.
Tow prices reflect overhead, skill and the need to cover the losses associated with towing for police, Prendergast said.
“Fifty percent of the time we respond to law enforcement, we never get paid,” Prendergast said.
Motorists will often abandon a vehicle either because it is wrecked or a clunker, which means he must cover the cost of getting the title, storing the vehicle for prolonged period and towing it again to a salvage yard.
Trucks run more than $100,000 and then there’s the upkeep, fuel, and paying the driver.
Not just anyone can respond to accident scenes either, he said, because they require skill and experience in dealing with hazardous materials, hazardous traffic situations and sometimes even bodily fluids. The vehicles can be upside down, wrapped around a tree or embedded into another one and it takes skill to safely upright them.
As for the storage yard, Prendergast said he charges what he does because he is responsible for the car and contents.
“We’re not getting rich on this by no means, we’re just making a living,” he said.
Some companies will also lose revenue under the new contracts because they will be restricted to low-volume zones and away from the San Tan Valley area, where most of the towing in Pinal County occurs, Prendergast said.