North Myrtle Beach on August 17 took to the first step in sending its old towing laws to the junkyard of defunct ordinances in an effort to crack down on predatory towing and ensure the city is aware of all private property tows that occur within the city limits.
It was not an easy ride to get there as close to a dozen residents – including a tow truck company owner, homeowners’ association presidents and property managers – spoke against the ordinance.
But councilors said they've been inundated with complaints from people who claimed that they were towed even when legally parked, and did pass first reading of the ordinance without any “no” votes.
The proposed rules lay out a regulatory framework that mandates the involvement of the city’s public safety department before a wrecker performs any tows, and are designed to prevent wrecker companies from charging exorbitant or hidden administrative fees by codifying into law the exact type of fees and maximum amount of money the companies can charge for the tows.
Under the proposal, the police have to show up before any "nonconsensual tow" takes place. A nonconsensual tow is when a wrecker tows a vehicle from private property without the car owner's consent. Right now, if a tow company located outside the city limits is skirting the rules without the city’s knowledge, police officers have no legal recourse to enforce the law outside of their jurisdiction. By involving police before the tow happens, the city can prevent an illegal tow and have more documentation as proof if any company continues to break the law.
“I have been told that some of these companies are willing to pay people on the property under the table if they call them about a car that they may feel should be towed,” said Mayor Marilyn Hatley. “That’s just dirty business. And we are tourist community. That is our industry and to prey upon people from out of state… just for money, I’m sorry, I’m totally against it.”
Among the most controversial change in the new ordinances is the requirement that both the police and property owner or the owner’s agent of record show up to any nonconsensual tow. Those tows are generally initiated by the private property owner or agent of record to remove a vehicle from their property. An agent of record in this situation is someone who has the authority to call a wrecker service on behalf of the property owner. A property owner can designate any number of people to be agents of record.
Under the existing ordinance, towing companies must inform the city’s public safety department within 30 minutes of any nonconsensual tow they make, but police are not required to be present for the tow.
Also, the new ordinance explicitly mandates that a property owner or agent of record be present on the property to fill out an authorization form with the address of the tow, date and time of the tow, the reason for the tow, vehicle identification information, the location where the vehicle owner can retrieve their vehicle, and the “original wet ink signature of the private property owner or agent of record.”
The existing ordinance requires an “original signature” of the property owner or agent of record, but did not use the qualifier of “wet ink” or explicitly mandate the physical presence of the property owner or agent of record, even though that was the intent.
That language has led to some towing companies obtaining photocopies of pre-filled but incomplete authorization forms with a pre-signed signature, according to Public Safety Director Jay Fernandez, who said the city would then get photocopies of the forms. “My definition of a photocopy is not original; a copy is not original” Fernandez added.
The proposed requirement caused concern for property owners who believe the high volume of towing calls will be too much of a workload for the city’s police department to handle.
“I wonder when they get the thousands of calls they’re going to get, if they’re going to be able to respond,” said Marijane Ambrogi, president of Cherry Grove’s Sea Marsh 1 HOA. “I would think they have more important things to do then respond to my standing by a car and hoping a police officer gets there before the perpetrator beats me to a pulp because I called a police officer because he’s parked in the wrong area.”
Fernandez countered that the city could respond quickly, and pointed out that the presence of police “can take care of any domestic issues you have, any problems. Call from your condo, stand in your condo. When we show up, you can walk out, we can help keep the peace.”
The opposition to the new rules also caused confusion about the exact number of nonconsensual tows in the city. The current ordinance requires tow companies to fax in the authorization forms for each non-consensual tow, but that doesn't always happen. Fernandez cited one property serviced by Coastline Towing that had almost 60 tows this year, but the required authorization forms from only half of them. Fernandez said the public safety department has six to eight units patrolling at any given time and could easily handle the number of non-consensual tows that the city is aware of.
Several residents who live in condos that contract with tow companies to remove trespassing cars said their properties had multiple nonconsensual tows per day.
“When I’m hearing five [tows] a day… there may be hundreds of tows being made that we’re not being [made] notice of,” said Fernandez. “That’s wrong. That’s against the law. I need to know about them. Of the 60 we have documented that are called in, we have a requirement that that documentation needs to be faxed, sent to us, or hand-delivered. Of those 60, we have approximately 30. At least 50 percent have not been delivered. And we have talked to wrecker owners about those issues and we’ve gotten nowhere.”
Some city officials said most of the problems with predatory towing were caused by a single tow company that covers most commercially-owned private lots in the city.
“The issue we are trying to deal with today is a towing company within the city that goes and seeks cars to tow,” said councilor Nikki Fontana. “We are trying to eliminate a towing company that is paying people to put eyes on cars that pull into spaces and has violated the ordinance as it is written.”
While Fontana and others didn’t explicitly name the towing company they were referring to, Coastline Towing owner Richard Pate identified himself as the subject of the accusations.
“It’d be nice, before we got accused of something, for somebody to have proof of what y’all are talking about,” Pate said, adding that his company covers about 300 properties within the city limits and does most of the nonconsensual tows in town.
The Coastline Towing owner also said he thinks the problems stem from a disagreement about how to interpret the city’s towing ordinance.
“We’re a viable business in the city of North Myrtle Beach and we’ve been here for 35 years,” Pate said. “It’s not something that we just started yesterday. We work with Highway Patrol, we do Atlantic Beach and Horry County. We don’t have anybody complaining about the job that we do. We just have a few differences that we don’t agree on about the way the city ordinance is wrote, and that’s really all this is about.”
Pate blamed the lack of faxed authorization forms for half the city’s tows on the city’s fax machine, and said he told Fernandez about the problem months ago.
“I told him then that we were having trouble faxing them over to the city and he said the city was having trouble with their phone service,” Pate said. “We’re not bad people, we’re trying to do the right thing.”
James Gause, who owns Gause’s Towing and Recovery, said he didn’t think police would have time to inspect every vehicle that gets towed, but that the presence of police would make things easier on him as a tow truck operator from a liability standpoint. “That’d be great for us,” he said.
Gause also said that some wrecker companies in town aren’t following the rules, and that the police need to be able to enforce the rules consistently against the rulebreakers.
“These towing companies are not reporting their private property tows to the police department,” he said. “They’re basically roving the street, they’re stealing from people. So people like myself who run a legitimate business, we know it’s happening, and the city knows it’s happening. The point is, they have a hard time catching them and also enforcing the rules.”
The towing and recovery operator estimated that he does only one or two nonconsensual tows a month within the city limits.
“I do common-sense towing,” he said. “I try to give the person the opportunity to move their vehicle prior to towing them. I just don’t go hijack their car just because. I think towing is a mutual agreement. Just because your vehicle is there doesn’t mean I have to be the butthole to tow it. I can also give you the opportunity to do the right thing.”
And Gause said honesty, or lack thereof, is the reason for the difference between the alleged “hundreds” of tows in the city versus the 60 that the public safety department know about.
“I think the disconnect comes down to whether you want to be honest or not, and some people are not being honest,” he added.
While the intent of the existing ordinance is that the property owner or agent of record should show up on scene for a tow, in practice, that didn’t always happen. The new language offers no vagueness or grey area about the requirement that the property owner or agent of record show up on scene.
“You’re talking about a registered agent or owner having to call the police themselves and waiting for the police officer to get there,” said Pam Stanley, HOA manager for Pierwatch Villas in Cherry Grove. “There is no way for us doing that without hiring security, which we can’t really afford to do, honestly. Rents are already depressed and the owners are already stretched thin. Our owners have the right to enjoy their property and their guests enjoy their property without needing government permission to remove trespassers from their property.”
Councilor J.O. Baldwin also questioned the effect the new rules would have on property owners.
“My concern was a property owner, in the new verbiage, has to be present,” Baldwin said. “In my opinion, I think that can’t be possible sometimes. I understand the agent of record, but you have to hire somebody, and that might be an unnecessary burden and could put them and [their] safety at risk as well.”
To be clear, the old towing ordinance also required the sign-off of a property owner or agent of record on an authorization form, but without the “wet ink” stipulation, they did not always interpret the law as requiring them to be physically present during the tow, and wreckers would use photocopies of forms that included the signatures.
“We do have a problem here,” Baldwin said. “What we don’t want to do is end up creating another problem, and that happens sometimes.”
Although council passed the ordinance on first reading, the city’s public safety department planned to meet with the tow companies operating in the city to figure out the actual number of non-consensual tows taking place, and then hold a workshop to figure out how best to address the issue once all the facts have been agreed-upon.
“Obviously there’s a lot of misunderstanding around here,” Hatley said. “Something’s not right. And we need to get to the bottom of this and figure out just what is the truth? And I’ve got a feeling we’ll be surprised.”
Correction: Public Safety Director Jay Fernandez and Mayor Marilyn Hatley said during this meeting said the city had a record of 60 nonconsenual tows this year, and only have the required authorization forms. Fernandez later clarified that the number he cited was for just one property, and city records support his claim.