Pinellas County defers decision on towing fee increases

Marson Johnson, co-owner of Elvis Towing and Transport in St. Petersburg and president of the Professional Wreckers Association of Florida, tells Pinellas County Commissioners July 23 the high cost of doing business required a bigger increase in towing fees that staff proposed.

CLEARWATER — It’s been 19 years since Pinellas County changed its ordinance governing towing fees. And it will be at least 60 days more before anything happens in that regard.

Pinellas County Commissioners agreed July 23 to defer a decision on increasing fees after objections from owners of a local towing and transport company, who said what staff proposed was not enough to cover increasing costs.

Doug Templeton, Consumer Protection Operations Manager, presented staff’s proposal to increase fees on Class A vehicles from $100 to $110 and the daily storage fee from $20 to $25. . The fee per mile for all vehicles would go up from $3 to $4.

Class A vehicles are those with a weight limit of 10,000 pounds or less that can carry a vessel 15 feet of less in length.

Templeton said staff had researched neighboring counties and others to try to find a cost that would balance the need of towing operators and expenses for consumers. He said the proposed fees would be a 15%-17% increase depending on the situation, meaning the number of miles involved and potential storage fees.

Templeton said a revised ordinance also would require that fees be reviewed every three years, so another 19 years didn’t pass before they were considered again.

Many of the neighboring counties charge $125 and Commissioner Pat Gerard asked why the county wouldn’t consider an increase to $120 or $125 instead of going with incremental increases every three years.

Templeton said the thinking was to protect consumers from having to absorb a bigger increase all at one time.

Commissioner Janet Long pointed out that only going to $110 didn’t make local tow truck operators competitive with others in the region.

“Fair is fair,” she said.

Commissioner Charlie Justice said he hadn’t heard from tow truck operators requesting an increase. But Commissioner Kathleen Peters and Gerard said they had.

“I’ve been approached several times about rates,” Gerard said. “They’re waiting on us.”

Templeton said he met with local tow truck operators about two years ago “during the previous administration,” and a decision was made to hold off on any changes.

Marson Johnson, co-owner of Elvis Towing and Transport in St. Petersburg and president of the Professional Wreckers Association of Florida, said he had talked to commissioners years ago, naming some that served in the years 2008-2012 as well as the late John Morroni. He said county staff had not invited him or other tow truck operators to discuss proposed fee increases before presenting them to the commission.

Johnson said towing fees were a statewide issue due to increases in equipment cost and insurance going up 200%-300%. He wants the county to consider a “fair price.”

He said he was working with other counties, including those Pinellas had compared its fees to about the need to charge more.

Stephanie Watson Johnson, co-owner of Elvis Towing and Transport, said she appreciated that commissioners were considering an increase, but requested more time to talk about it first.

Gerard said the commission could table the matter, adding it was risky.

“It took us 19 years (to talk about an increase),” she said.

But Johnson said increasing the fee to $120 wasn’t enough, which was the reason he was meeting with other counties. He said low fees were a major problem with some of the bigger companies leaving the state because they can’t afford insurance.

He said he emailed a packet of information to commissioners on Monday before the Tuesday meeting. Eggers said he received it. The others didn’t know anything about it, but after checking his in-box, Commissioner Ken Welch found it in his junk mail.

Gerard suggested that they defer the matter until staff could meet with the tow truck operators to find something equitable.

Commission Chair Karen Seel seemed reluctant to table the decision, pointing out that staff had presented an “appropriate balance” for consumers and businesses. She is concerned that compromising could result in “spiraling rises in price.”

Justice said he had no problem with deferring the matter to give tow truck operators a fair chance to make their case.

Peters said she would have like to have tow truck operators “come to the table” and suggested a six-month deferment. In the end, the matter was tabled for 60 days.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.