City code obligates officials to shut down overcharging towing companies

By Damon Krane
November 24, 2021
Athens News (Athens, Ohio) 

By Damon Krane

The recent Post article, “Towing in Confusion,” conveys the current mood about towing fees but misses the most important facts and implications. 

First, the confusion: The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio caps the towing fee at $129; daily vehicle storage fee at $17; and after-hours retrieval at $150. However, Athens City Code caps towing at $50 for any vehicle under 15,000 lbs.; daily storage at $6; and after-hours retrieval at $10. So if you’re towed in Athens, what can you be charged — the city maximum or the PUCO maximum? What if you’re overcharged?

Next, facts to dispel the confusion: In 2003 the Ohio General Assembly established Revised Code 4921.30 (later re-numbered 4921.25), which was only two sentences long. The first sentence subjected towing companies to PUCO regulation; the second barred municipalities from regulating towing. In the 2014 case of Cleveland v. State, the Ohio Supreme Court upheld the first sentence but struck down the second as an unconstitutional violation of home rule. So in 2015, and again in 2017, legislators re-wrote 4921.25, removing the ban on municipal regulation and creating a longer law linked to additional statutes. Nothing in the current law prohibits municipal regulation, and the linked statutes acknowledge municipal authority to license towing operators (4513.601) and set towing fees (4513.60). 

One passage of 4513.60 refers to “Payment of all applicable fees established by the public utilities commission in rules adopted under section 4921.25 of the Revised Code or, if the vehicle was towed within a municipal corporation that has established fees for vehicle removal and storage, payment of all applicable fees established by the municipal corporation”; another states an owner who discovers their vehicle about to be towed may regain possession by paying either half the PUCO fee or “if the vehicle is within a municipal corporation and the municipal corporation has established a vehicle removal fee… the owner or operator may pay not more than one-half of that fee.”

Meanwhile, 4513.601(B)(2) states, “If a municipal corporation requires tow trucks and tow truck operators to be licensed, no owner of a private property located within the municipal corporation shall cause the removal and storage of any vehicle… by an unlicensed tow truck or unlicensed tow truck operator.”

Thus city Law Director Lisa Eliason is right to say that Athens City Code, not PUCO, regulates local towing. However, she is wrong to suggest the city has no enforcement power — that someone overcharged can only file suit against the towing operator.

Athens City Code 7.06.03 states towing operators must be licensed by the city to operate here. If any “required information” on the operator’s license application “is found to be misrepresented or untrue, rejection of such application or revocation of any issued license shall be mandatory.” Finally, 7.09.99 (T)(1-2) establishes the following penalties for any towing operator who engages in “illegal towing.” 

“Any owner or operator who violates Sections 7.06.01 to 7.06.23  of the Athens City Code [author’s note: Section 7.06.17(A) establishes city towing fees] other than Section 7.06.03 or 7.06.05 or the provisions of Section 7.05.30 of the Athens City Code, or any towing regulation as promulgated by the service-safety director as provided for in Section 7.06.22, shall be guilty of illegal towing and shall be fined not more than $25.00 for the first offense and not more than $100.00 for any subsequent offense…”

“Any owner or operator who is convicted of three [such] violations… during the one-year licensing period shall have his license to own or operate a tow truck within the corporate limits of Athens suspended by the service-safety director for a period of not less than 30 nor more than 90 days.”

Athens is not unique. Nearly every Ohio city I’ve researched so far establishes its own towing fees — including Cleveland, Akron, Youngstown, Cincinnati, Columbus, Kent, Oxford, Mansfield, Dublin, Canton, Dayton and Chillicothe. Youngstown is among cities with a process for revoking licenses, fining, criminally charging, and even jailing towing operators who violate its regulations. Akron just updated its fees a few months ago. 

Yet when I emailed City Service-Safety Director Andy Stone, he said he and his predecessors have not followed city towing regulations since 2004 and he’s not about to start now. 

“The sections of the ACC you referred to were rendered moot by the state legislature several years ago when they superseded local legislation.. placing towing companies under the jurisdiction of the PUCO,” Stone stated incorrectly.

I explained the relevant case law and statutes, but Stone maintained, “While the ACC notes my office holds the responsibility, I do not intend to reinstitute a [licensing and regulatory] program that has not existed for at least 17 years which I believe at least partially conflicts with state law.” 

I asked if Eliason and Police Chief Pyle (who Stone said he would consult) share his legal beliefs. Stone replied, “it is our opinion that… [ACC] 7.06 is antiquated due to conflicting laws and case laws,” although he did not cite any. 

So, finally, the implications: In one of the poorest and most income-unequal places in Ohio, Athens city administrators have spent many years defying local regulations and misrepresenting state law to enable towing companies to charge fees that, for many local workers, are equivalent to an entire week’s wages.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, it begs the question: Why do administrators believe they can pick and choose which portions of code they follow? Council holds legislative power; the administration’s job is to implement Council’s legislation. If administrators can arbitrarily ignore legislation, then our city is not governed by the rule of law but by the whims of individual officials. Why then even have a Council– or law, for that matter?

-Damon Krane is a longtime community organizer focused on reducing inequality and increasing democracy. He ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Athens in 2019 and City Council in 2021.

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