Wrecker company manager asks city for rate increases

Aug. 17 – Limits on how much towing companies can charge for police-initiated claims in Decatur are so low that some tow companies are refusing calls from the city and creating long delays at the scene for police officers, said a local tow truck company official.

Kenny Hetrick, director of All Star Towing & Recovery of Decatur, on Monday asked the city council to consider raising the rates a towing company can charge when answering a call from the city.

The city uses a rotation system on police calls requesting that a wrecked or impounded vehicle be towed. The vehicle owner is responsible for towing and storage costs, and towing companies require payment before releasing the vehicle.

On a call from the city, Decatur allows a tow company to charge $75 for a typical tow and $125 for a wreck, tow needed for an arrest, or to recover an abandoned vehicle. Storage of a towed vehicle on behalf of the City is capped at $20 per day.

Hetrick proposed allowing fees of $125 for a routine traffic check or tow, $200 for a wreck or abandon, and $30 a day for storage.

Hetrick pointed out that the city has not increased tow truck rates since 2008. He said the city does not allow any charges for the first 24 hours of storage.

“At the time (of the last rate increases in 2008), diesel was $1.50 a gallon and now it’s $5 a gallon,” Hetrick said. “My truck alone cost $70,000 new (in 2008), and now it’s over $100,000. Drivers pay $18-$20 an hour, even at 3 a.m.

“Taking all this into consideration and a $75 fare, it makes you wonder if it’s worth answering a call from the city.”

Mayor Tab Bowling proposed rate increases in 2017. However, former council chair Paige Bibbee said council members at the time had several questions about the proposal, so she did not was never put to a vote.

Hetrick pointed out that surrounding communities allow breakdown services to charge higher rates.

Trinity Police Chief Randy Hughes said the four wreckers on the city’s call list can charge $200 for impoundment plus an additional $50 to tow a vehicle from an accident scene . The city’s rate structure also allows for charges for cleanup and time spent at the scene of the accident. Tow trucks must purchase a business license and pass an annual inspection by Hughes, but there is no charge to be on the city’s call list. Services must also have plenty in the city.

Hughes said they had a problem where one breakdown service was charging significantly more than the others, so he called a meeting to resolve the issue. He says he asked services to justify their costs when setting rates.

“I wanted to make sure nobody was charging outrageous rates and nobody was too cheap,” Hughes said. “We just needed to all be on the same page.”

Priceville Mayor Sam Heflin said his city does not set limits on how much tow truck services can charge. He said the city used to collect $25 on every call, but collecting the fee “was so messy” and barely covering the expense, so the city eliminated it.

Athens spokeswoman Holly Hollman said her city does not have a fee structure that limits what breakdown services can charge. The City of Madison’s website says it doesn’t have a fee structure either, but it does charge a $25 fee for the city to send a tow truck.

“While our storage costs $20 a day for storage, all other cities cost between $30 and $40 for storage,” Hetrick said.

Hetrick said there isn’t much left after spending with the $75 limit, but the company is making a small profit by being on the city’s rotation list.

“If we lost money, we would go bankrupt,” Hetrick said. “But we’re not far off (with the current tariff structure).”

Danny Gant of Sammy’s Towing operates out of Hartselle “so we’re pushing it to get to Decatur, especially with the cost of gas and all of our expenses going up.” He pointed out that insurance costs were also on the rise.

Hetrick said several tow companies were refusing to make Decatur calls because of city rate limits, creating problems for Morgan County 911 and the police department. A tow company can get on the city’s call rotation list, but there is no penalty for declining calls.

The 911 dispatcher ends up having to call multiple tow companies looking for someone willing to make a call, Hetrick said.

“A dispatcher spends 30 minutes, so a police officer is tied down at the scene waiting on a tow truck and another 30 minutes watching the vehicle loaded onto the truck,” Hetrick said. “It’s almost an hour at the scene waiting on a tow truck.”

Police Chief Todd Pinion said he was unaware the wait for tow trucks was a problem, but he said it may have been because officers were not reporting the minor issue . He said he needed to speak with his officers to find out if what Hetrick claims is really a problem.

Morgan County 911 Director Jeanne Pharis said roll calls from demolition companies “are an ongoing problem, but I wouldn’t call it a serious problem.”

Pharis said 17 demolition companies pay $100 per month or $1,100 per year to be on Decatur’s rotation list. This money goes to Morgan County 911. Decatur’s only revenue from demolition companies comes from their purchase of an annual business license that allows them to operate in the city.

Councilor Hunter Pepper said he had ridden with Hetrick’s company several times and thought they deserved a raise.

“They’re up day and night to answer a dispatcher’s call for just $75,” Pepper said. “They risk their lives at the scene and they don’t get the same recognition as other first responders.”

[email protected] or 256-340-2432. Twitter @DD_BayneHughes.