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Public Safety Commission raises questions about proposed tow fee increases

Wednesday, January 11, 2023 by Nina Hernandez

The city’s Public Safety Commission wants more information before recommending an updated non-consent towing fee schedule for the Austin Police Department. Commissioners voted to recommend City Council reject the study and send it back for additional work.

The item went before the commission at its Jan. 9 regular meeting. A non-consent tow includes police impound, crash scenes and private property impounds, and the fees private tow companies are allowed to charge for these services are governed by the city.

Complaining of rising costs due to inflation, the towing companies requested that APD conduct a fee study, increase current fees and introduce new ones.

Council last raised tow fees in 2019.

Representatives from local tow operators told the commission that they are requesting the fee increase to include consideration of increased fuel, labor, equipment and other operation costs. Currently, the fee for a light-duty tow is $185. The towing companies want to revise the fee upward to $340, which would include a new $4 toll fee and a $150 electric vehicle exceptional labor fee. For medium-duty and heavy-duty tows, the tow companies suggest $566 (up from $350) and $1,132 (up from $800), respectively.

A representative from one tow company said the increase would also help train operators to transport electric cars.

The APD study proposes raising the light-duty tow fee to $215, which it said is in line with the consumer price index. For medium-duty and heavy-duty tows, the price would be $380 (up from $350) and $915 (up from $800), respectively.

However, several commissioners had questions regarding the department’s research methodology and expressed concerns about the hikes. Commissioner Rebecca Webber asked if the electric vehicle fee would be charged across the board, or only in cases of battery failure. Staffers could not answer the question. Webber is also concerned that the fee is not in line with the city’s purported value of encouraging electric vehicle use.

“I think it needs a second look,” she said.

Austin Fire Department Assistant Chief Brandon Wade said that electric car batteries are contained and therefore not considered hazardous waste; however, electric car battery fires do present a different challenge from a traditional fire because they require more time and water to extinguish. And unlike a traditional gas-powered car, an electric car battery can spontaneously erupt back into flames during or even after transport.

“It could ignite on the tow truck, it could ignite back in the yard,” he said. “So there are special parameters that the tow truck companies have to do whenever they store it. Because electric vehicle fires are completely different than a normal fire.”

Commissioner Nelly Paulina Ramirez asked if any community or consumer interest had been consulted by APD during the study. Staff responded that no consumer interests had been included.

“I’m just really concerned at the staggering amount that this fee has gotten to,” Ramirez said. “I understand that there are cop costs and I sympathize with the towing companies that are running their businesses, and trying to keep up with inflation and the cost of fuel and equipment. But I’m really concerned, quite frankly, with this huge sort of spike in prices for people that quite frankly are in accidents and are in situations that are sometimes difficult.”

She concluded, “This is problematic. This is tough.”

Chair Rebecca Bernhardt asked if staff could return to the commission with more information about the $150 electric vehicle fee. Michelle Schmidt, APD finance director, said she assumed it’s a combination of labor costs and the cost of a solvent used during transport to prevent reignition.

Webber said if the department does more work on the study, she would like to see it include more information about non-consent fees and whether residents are able to pay them. She would also like data on how many vehicles are abandoned for that reason.

“I just think we need to consider how these fees affect regular people,” Webber said. “And I am still very uncomfortable with the answers that I got about non-skilled tow truck drivers being tasked with hazardous materials.”

Photo by Jelson25, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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