Towing Troubles in the Classic City

Sweaty and tired, Angela Gao walked across downtown at 4:55 p.m. to the parking lot after her regular Friday shift. She looked around for minutes until her worst fear was realized.

“I parked downtown across from SunO’s before work,” Gao said, an employee at Transmetropolitan. “When I came back, it was gone.”

Cars of all sizes fit like puzzle pieces across the squared streets of the downtown area. Dozens of people can be seen pumping quarter after quarter into the five feet tall meters emerging from the concrete along each street. A young male walks back and forth on the driver’s side of his SUV, possibly considering and reconsidering parking in the W01 lot, before pulling back out and leaving.

This scene exemplifies the state of fear many have when parking in downtown. All are uneasy without sufficient pocket change or permits in a city with limited parking, facing a slew of towing service with varying fees and practices.

Gao says that she called the towing agency, Oldham’s, listed at the front of lot, who told her that if she could get from Broad Street to Oak Street in five minutes, it would only be $150 – only in cash — to release her 1998 Toyota Solara. If she couldn’t, her next option would be the following day for $165.

Others like Gao have also faced large prices concerning wrecking fees. The Athens-Clarke County police released a statement concerning the “recently fielded inquiries in regards to regulations upon what a wrecker service may charge” in November 2010.

The statement later quotes section 6-15-6 of the Athens-Clarke county Code of Ordinances, stating a $100 maximum on wrecking fees for police nonconsensual tows, when lot owners or towing companies spot an illegally parked car and take action. Municode, the online library for Athens-Clarke County code of ordinances, states that the ordinance is still in effect today, but several other ordinances added in 2004 were not followed in Gao’s experience.

The new ordinance says that a “wrecker service must accept credit cards or bank debit cards at its place of business for payment of the fees,” a rule that didn’t seem to apply to Gao, who later had to “pool all [her] tip money and withdraw to get the car out for work the next day.”

There are more than a handful of towing services that service the downtown, each with their own separate prices and locations. While some offenders on Clayton Street may face a $100 fee from Barrett’s Towing, others are slapped with a $150 or higher charge from Oldham’s Wrecker Paint and Body Shop.

“We parked in the 909 lot overnight and when we came back, [our cars] were gone,” Monica Flamini said, a student at the University echoing Gao’s statements. “We hadn’t known that they were towed. We had to pay $175 for each car. Their place is in the middle of nowhere and it really put a damper on our day.”

The revenue from fines and forfeitures total $4,748,100, which is a 5.6 percent increase since the last fiscal year, according to the Athens-Clarke County budget. It is the one of the largest increases, percentage wise, despite being only two percent of total revenue.

The Athens-Clarke county ordinances create a conflict between police consensual and nonconsensual tows. “Fees for removal, storage, etc., of authorized vehicles from private property,” section 3-4-43, states that the charge for towing is $60 in the daytime and $70 in the nighttime, with the decision depending on the time the dispatcher calls the towing service. In the case of Gao, if the police had called instead of the lot’s owner, it would have saved her $95.

George Maxwell is the commissioner for the district encompassing downtown. Maxwell could not be reached for comment on the issue at the moment.

Oldham’s has also not followed the ordinance in regard to being “staffed and operated … from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays.”

“They told me to call after 10 a.m.,” Gao said. “When I called around 11:30 a.m., they told me I was too late.”

The Property Casualty Insurers Association of America(PCI) tracks the hassles of towing across the country through national surveys. The 2011 National Towing Survey created a list of “the 149 worst areas for aggressive towing practices,” listing Atlanta, Ga. as No. 4 in the country among Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and Houston.

“While there are many honest, well-intentioned operators, a few bad players have created widespread problems,” PCI said in a press release. The biggest issues found by PCI in the survey were those faced by Gao: towing/storage charges and miscellaneous Fees; inconsistent and difficult release process; lack of transparency and communication from towing companies; and access to vehicle for adjustors.

Many park illegally due to the heavily pedestrianized state of downtown. The conflict lies between where people want and where people can park. The new Washington Street deck hopes to alleviate the issue of illegal parking in downtown.

“If someone would like to park for a longer period of time, that’s a matter of choice and the new deck would allow them to do that,” Laura Miller said, director of parking operations for the Athens Downtown Development Authority, to the Civic Life in Downtown Athens blog.

Gao must continue to park downtown for her job despite the giant, red $165 mark on her bank statement.

“I now have to be more vigilant about the situation,” Gao said. “I sometimes have to move my car around during my break if I feel like I might get towed. I am just paranoid.”

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