The Pomona tow truck moguls lined the back row of council chambers and stewed. The clock ticked until well past seven o’clock and they conversed in hushed tones. “Cortez never started late,” one of them remarked, referring to now-deceased former Pomona mayor Eddie Cortez.
The Big Three of Pomona tow operators, Pomona Valley Towing, Bill & Wags Towing, and S & J Towing, were assembled to hear arguments for and against declaring an intent to extend three-year, non-exclusive franchise agreements with the city for police initiated tows. The existing contracts expired at the end of February and were scheduled to be discussed at the March 2nd council meeting. That meeting was adjourned out of respect of the passing of Nell Soto, former Pomona Councilperson and California state senator.
But franchise contracts were not the only resolution being decided. Also on the docks was a resolution approving increases in the hourly and storage rates charged by the tow companies. Currently, the City Code allows for a 5% annual increase.
They also had to deal with a party crasher, Al & Sons Towing, who had applied for a franchise contract and was informed they did not meet the minimum requirements of the ordinance.
Robert Ring, an attorney representing Al & Sons Towing, put a charge in the proceedings by asking for an abeyance of the resolution for 60 days.
“Al & Sons’ application was never considered,” said Ring, who added that the stumbling block was Pomona’s insistence that there be 200 storage spaces available, which Al & Sons does not currently have. City Attorney Arnold Alvarez Glasman disputed Ring’s version of events.
The issue is crucial in the city because many citizens feel that the Big Three constitute a monopoly on tow business in Pomona (although Councilperson Stephen Atchley pointed out that the correct term would be “oligopoly”).
Try as Pomona might, it is unable to step away from the controversy engendered by DUI checkpoints, especially the notorious May 2,3 2008 four-way checkpoint that begat an onslaught of protests and led to the formation of an ad hoc committee to establish police guidelines.
The towers’ role in the checkpoint controversy stems from the same franchise agreements they were seeking to have extended. Opposers of the DUI checkpoints say that the tow companies are making an exorbitant amount of money from vehicles impounded at the checkpoints, thus have a financial stake in keeping the checkpoints going. Tow companies say they are just doing their job.
The current rate for a Class A vehicle (one that weighs 3/4 to 1 ton), after tow charges, storage fees, city fees and police vehicle release fees, is just over $300 for one day of a police-intiated tow. With the proposed rate adjustments offered by the Big Three, the hourly rate would increase 19% from $126.75 to an even $150 an hour and the storage rate from $25 to $38 a day, raising the daily rate to $338.
In a letter to acting Police Chief David Keetle, Dave Schuetz of Pomona Valley Towing justified the rate increases as being more in line with tow rates charged by companies contracted with the California Highway Patrol’s Baldwin Park office. Schuetz also maintained that PVT “experienced increased costs that were never passed on to the city.”
An attachment to the city staff report shows that, indeed, current tow rates within the city of Pomona are lower than contracted rates the companies have with neighboring cities, like Claremont. However, in the case of heavier vehicles, from one to five tons, the rates would be costlier. And not included in the attachment are statistics of how many vehicles are impounded in the neighboring cities. In a 12-month period covering April 2007 to May 2008, over 3,000 cars were impounded at DUI checkpoints in Pomona.
Vice Mayor Christina Carrizosa (both Mayor Elliot Rothman and Councilperson Freddie Rodriguez were absent from the meeting) produced a document showing that the increases sought by the tow companies were far above the 5% level, ranging anywhere from 19% to over 100%, depending on the vehicle.
“I don’t think this is an acceptable increase in this economy,” said Carrizosa.
One by one, the tow operators came to the podium to plead their cases. Gabriel Jimenez of Bill & Wags Towing said that criticism is misguided. “We don’t impound. We treat everybody with dignity and respect.”
Carrizosa was not impressed. She tried to pass a motion to scuttle the resolutions all together and start the whole process anew. However, this motion was denied 3-2.
In the end, the notice of intent to award the franchises was granted (pending a second reading to be discussed at a future council meeting) but the approval for the proposed increases was not passed.