Unregulated towing fees leave drivers on the hook

Steve Chamraz and Paul Marble

Unregulated towing fees leave drivers on the hook

CREATED Jul. 18, 2013 - UPDATED: Jul. 18, 2013

MILWAUKEE - Park on someone's private property without permission and chances are your car will disappear in a flash.

What's not as clear is what you will wind up paying for that bad decision, as no agency at the city or state level keeps an eye on what private towing companies charge for a so-called trespass tow.
Mark Paget learned that the hard way in April, as he was returning from dinner at a restaurant on Milwaukee's east side.
"The first thought I had was it was stolen," Paget said, retracing his steps last week in a parking lot on North Farwell Avenue.
Paget's Lincoln did not disappear at the hand of thieves, but into the custody of Always Towing & Recovery, the private firm retained to remove vehicles from many private parking lots around the city of Milwaukee.
"Totally my fault," Paget admits. He was running late for a dinner date, he said, and took a spot that looked like a safe place to park. 
What he failed to notice were several "no parking" signs on a pole in the middle of the lot.
"Never saw the sign. I wasn't looking for it and I came out and my car was gone."
While Paget understands he was wrong  he has no idea why that mistake cost him so much money.
The bill to release his car on Monday morning was $374.88.
"When it gets up in the $400 range for a tow that went five miles and they held it for less than 48 hours, that to me is excessive," he said.
Mike Tarantino understands his frustration, as he deals with people in the same boat every day.
Tarantino is one of the people in charge at Always Towing & Recovery.
"Typically, people aren't happy about it," Tarantino said. "Some are more understanding than others."
What is so difficult to people like Paget to comprehend is why private towing companies set their prices at rates almost double what the city of Milwaukee charges. Had Paget been towed from a city street, his bill would have been $185 - $125 for the tow and $60 for storage.
With Always Towing it was $225 for the tow, $105 for storage, a $25 processing fee and almost $20 in tax.
"The numbers are based on what actually goes into the trespass towing service," Tarantino explained. "It is a higher fee because there's a lot more involved."
Tarantino let us tag along on one of those trespass tows to see for ourselves. It's a high-pressure job that involves a lot of risk and the occasional hours of waiting.
Since a car can't be towed from private property until a Milwaukee parking checker writes it a ticket, tow trucks can waste hours of valuable time waiting.
"Sometimes they come in 15 minutes, sometimes they come in 2 hours," he said. "Average response time in Milwaukee is anywhere from an hour to 90 minutes."
But that's not a good enough explanation for Mark Paget, since a towing company can take your car and theoretically charge you whatever they want to get it back.
"Who sets these fees," Paget said. "Who regulates? Are there ordinances and when is reasonable not reasonable?"
As it turns out, no one in Milwaukee or Wisconsin regulates the prices towing companies can charge. State law books make only one reference to this - saying charges need to be "reasonable."
That lack of regulation came as a bit of a surprise to State Representative Jon Richards, whose district includes the lot where Mark Paget parked illegally. While he understands the desire to keep unwanted vehicles off private property, Richards believes a nearly $400 bill is not in line with the law's requirement for a "reasonable" fee.
"Its way too expensive and they're gouging consumers who made a simple mistake," he said.
Richards recognizes this is a problem that can only be fixed by legislation, and believes it's time for lawmakers to start talking about a hard limit on fees.
"I doubt it's ever come before a judge to say what's reasonable or not," he said. "The legislature needs to come in and say, hey $400 for a single tow is not reasonable."
Other cities have gone this route. Portland, Oregon limits a basic tow to $168; Santa Monica, California to $160; and in San Antonio, Texas, towing is a real steal at only $85.
That's not something Mike Tarantino wants to see happen in Milwaukee, as his business will make less money. He insists the current fees are reasonable.
"We do think they're reasonable, considering everything that goes into the service, yes," he said.