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booted car

Urban Transportation Commission ponders fettering booting companies

Friday, July 13, 2018 by Ryan Young

In Central Austin, traffic is plentiful, but parking spaces are not. That’s where booting companies come in – they enforce parking rules at private businesses by immobilizing would-be offenders. Their fines are often cheaper than the charges levied by towing companies, too.

But some Austinites feel their practices are predatory. They say the booting companies take advantage of stressful situations and charge excessive fees to remove boots from vehicles. Now, the Austin Police Department is proposing to do something about it.

At a Tuesday meeting of the Urban Transportation Commission, APD Commander Eric Miesse presented a proposal for a new ordinance that would regulate booting companies at the municipal level.

APD started looking into a new ordinance back in 2016, Miesse said, but had to pause its efforts while the state Legislature considered deregulating booting at the state level. That legislation passed, so Austin needs to have something in place by September 1, or else the booting business could become a “free-for-all.”

Miesse said that APD started receiving complaints in 2013 that booting companies were charging fees that were “excessive” and their employees were not wearing uniforms or any forms of visible identification.

In Austin, the average boot removal fee is $150, according to Miesse. The proposed ordinance would cap that at $50. In Dallas, the limit is $100. In San Antonio, $35. In Houston, $25. The ordinance would also require boot operators to make themselves stand out by wearing high-visibility clothing and displaying APD-issued licenses.

Additionally, the ordinance would require booting companies to conduct background checks, be insured, and never charge more than one boot removal fee for a single vehicle, among other mandates.

Miesse said complaints against booting companies have come from around the city, such as from parents of students at Doss Elementary in Northwest Austin who were parking at nearby parking lots and walking their children to class – only to find boots on their cars when they returned. Effectively, they were “paying $150 to walk their children across to school,” Miesse said.

In addition, many complaints originate from the West Campus neighborhood near the University of Texas. The fact that the situation has affected many UT students was a point driven home by the testimony of Shawn Only, whose daughter was booted during her first visit to the university area as a Longhorn. Only’s daughter had parked her car on the wrong end of a parking lot. Just moments after she walked away from her car, two boot operators booted it, Only said.

Only claimed the operators were staking out the parking lot for hours on end, watching for motorists who parked and headed for the wrong business. She said they also refused to unboot her daughter’s car when she refused to sign off on their version of the story.

“They bullied me and my daughter,” Only said. “I just think there’s gross abuse on these (booting) companies’ part. They should be uniformed, they should inform, they should have ID, and they were intimidating and rude. And the fee is just exorbitant.”

At the same time, cracking down on booting could have unintended consequences.

“Booting is a cheaper alternative for citizens who park where they’re not supposed to,” APD Detective Thomas Ballard said. “If you … get towed, yes the tow fee is $150, but once you get to the lot, there are a bunch of state fees that they can charge. It’s usually about $193 to get your vehicle out of the tow yard.”

So, limiting boot fees could encourage more towing. “I guess the danger is, if the boot fee is too low, then the profit motive encourages towing, which is a much bigger pain in every way,” Commissioner Mario Champion noted. “That’s a tricky balance.”

But regardless, the commissioners agreed that something needs to be done. Indeed, Commissioner Chris Hosek asked, “Why didn’t we pass this ordinance sooner?” Miesse had previously stated that other Texas cities have had their booting laws on the books for years.

Ballard said that booting hadn’t been an issue in Austin until recently. “Booting is a big-city problem,” he said. “You don’t have booting in Round Rock or Georgetown because there’s plenty of parking up there.”

Hosek was unimpressed.

“I think it’s interesting that other cities managed to regulate this a while back, and yet we’re catching up now,” he said. “We could’ve done this a couple years ago; we just failed to do that.”

Photo by Stromcarlson at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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