Non-consensual towing companies in Bloomington now need a license

 

Beginning July 1 this year, companies that tow vehicles that are illegally parked on private property in Bloomington will need a license from the city to provide the service to property owners.

Bloomington’s city council voted unanimously at its regular Wednesday meeting to enact the new law.

Highlights of the law include a $350 annual license fee for tow companies that do non-consensual tows. Those companies can’t charge vehicle owners more than $135 for basic towing, $25 for use of a dolly, and $25 per day storage, to retrieve their towed vehicles.

Companies also have to offer vehicle owners the chance to pay 20 percent of their fees and sign a payment agreement for the balance.

On Wednesday, the council approved some amendments that had been discussed previously during consideration of the ordinance.

The sponsor of the new law, councilmember Jim Sims reviewed the history of the council’s work, which included a work session on Jan. 10, a first reading on Jan. 15, a committee-of-the-whole meeting on Jan. 22, further consideration at a regular meeting on Feb. 5, and a committee-of-the-whole meeting on Feb. 12.

Amendments approved on Wednesday increased the cap on the basic towing fee, from $125 to $135. That’s to align with fees charged by Indiana University and Monroe County.

Another amendment approved by the council on Wednesday allows the license administrator, which is the head of the economic and sustainability department, to decide not to renew, or grant a license in the first place, if a company has violated the ordinance in the past. Councilmember Isabel Piedmont-Smith highlighted the fact that some previous wording, which included the possibility of a license denial based on a warning, had been struck from the amendment.

A potential amendment that prompted around an hour of discussion at the Feb. 12 meeting of the committee of the whole would have allowed an additional “administrative fee” of $25. The amendment was not introduced for consideration at Wednesday’s meeting.

The required 20-percent payment option was the subject of some public commentary and a question from councilmember Sue Sgambelluri.

At the public podium, tow company operator Max Stryker asked how tow companies were supposed to get their money back if a vehicle owner did not pay the remaining 80 percent of the bill. City attorney Mike Rouker said that the city deals with these types of debts all the time. The typical remedy remedy for an $80-90 debt is a collection agency, Rouker said.

Sgambelluri wanted clarification that the wording of the ordinance did not allow a towing company to impose finance charges for the payment plan. She was concerned about the following paragraph:

This fee limitation does not restrict fees being charged for other services, provided that said others services are requested by the vehicle’s owner.

Sgambelluri wondered if the option of a payment plan could be construed as a “service” that’s requested by the vehicle owner. Deputy council attorney Stephen Lucas said he did not read the ordinance as allowing finance charges.

A question was raised during public commentary about the way the city selects towing companies for city-initiated tows, which are not subject to the new ordinance. City-initiated tows included those from traffic crashes, for example. It’s not every company that is eligible to do such tows—the city of Bloomington contracts with four different companies, and sets the rates they’re allowed to charge.

Responding to a question, city attorney Mike Rouker said that it’s not a matter of which towing companies have “buddies” at the city that determines if they’re in the rotation used by the city. Rouker’s remark prompted some laughs from a few tow company operators seated in the city council chambers.

Being selected to be in the rotation is a matter of whether a towing company can get the towing done in a timely way, Rouker said. If a car crash is blocking traffic, it’s important to get a damaged vehicle towed out of the way quickly, Rouker said.

Councilmembers indicated some interest in following up on how the city-initiated towing contracts are reviewed.

Councilmember Jim Sims was sponsor of the non-consensual towing ordinance, which was initiated last year by former councilmembers Dorothy Granger and Andy Ruff. He was carrying it forward on their behalf.

Sims wrapped up the point of the ordinance on Wednesday by saying that if someone is parked illegally, and all the conditions of the ordinance are met, it’s fine for their vehicle to be towed. The point of the ordinance is to make sure that the towing is done in a fair and equitable way, Sims said.

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