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Just who, exactly, regulates towing fees and impound costs in the state of Ohio?
The answer appears to be, no one in particular – meaning that there may be no legal limit on what a towing company could charge you for hauling your car away. And recent legislation meant to clarify the issue may have actually made it more ambiguous.
The Athens Police Department held its annual tow round-up in May, where officers and parking enforcement personnel target cars with owners who have unpaid parking tickets. Those cars are then impounded until payment of the tickets is arranged.
This process led some citizens who have emailed The Athens NEWS to question why towing companies in the city are charging rates above those allowed by city law.
The answer, according to city officials, dates back to 2003, when Ohio's state Legislature passed a law designating the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio as the regulator of towing operations.
"Any person, firm… company or corporation… that is engaged in the towing of motor vehicles is subject to regulation by the public utilities commission," Ohio Revised Code 4921.30 states. "Such an entity is not subject to any ordinance, rule or resolution of a municipal corporation, county or township that provides for the licensing, registering or regulation of entities that tow motor vehicles."
That language – giving the PUCO regulatory authority and exempting towing companies from municipal regulation – has led to a situation in Athens where towers are allowed to set their own rates without government oversight.
Prior to 2003, the city of Athens had a number of ordinances on the books regulating towing companies and their fee rates. Those ordinances were never repealed, rescinded or otherwise removed from city code.
Athens Police Chief Tom Pyle said Friday, however, that his department has been told that those local ordinances were nullified by the 2003 state law change, and is operating on that assumption.
"If you talk to the PUCO they'll tell you that they don't regulate rates, so in Ohio currently, tow rates are left up to the individual tow companies," he said. "It's kind of a real gray area… For years it's been maintained that Athens regulations with regard to towing were nullified in 2003."
Indeed, city prosecutor Lisa Eliason sent an email to the PUCO over a week ago. In that email, Eliason noted Athens code mandating a maximum "show-up" fee – when a vehicle owner shows up as her car is getting towed – of $20.
"That section was never repealed; however, the city has recognized since 2003 that (the ORC law) applies and that the city cannot by ordinance regulate entities that tow motor vehicles," she wrote. "Those that tow in Athens charge over $20. A citizen has recently challenged the amount being charged by private entities and has threatened a class action suit alleging the entities can only charge $20."
Eliason inquired whether the PUCO agrees that towing entities are allowed to set their own rates. She said she has not yet heard back from them. A PUCO spokesperson said Friday that the PUCO is only involved in the licensing and registration of tow companies and has no authority setting rates.
A spokesperson for the Ohio Legislative Service Commission, which provides analysis on Ohio Revised Code, suggested Friday that a new law passed by the current General Assembly complicates the matter further.
House Bill 487 was recently passed and is waiting Ohio Gov. John Kasich's signature. The law maintains the old language about PUCO regulating towing entities and those entities not being subject to municipal regulation. It goes further, however, in stating that PUCO is not responsible for regulating rates. But it does not designate any government entity as being responsible for such regulation.
"They are subject to PUCO as a for-hire motor carrier and they are not subject to regulation by the locals," the spokesperson said. "However… the bill had the effect of removing all rate-regulation authority from the PUCO. So, the section says the same thing, but for for-hire motor carrier rate regulation, authority from the PUCO does not exist."
The spokesperson acknowledged that if the PUCO doesn't have this authority, the question then becomes: Who does?
The citizen Eliason mentioned wished to remain anonymous for this story, but said that in a number of other cities throughout Ohio, including Columbus and Cincinnati, the municipalities still do regulate towing company fee rates. He said that in the absence of any other regulatory authority, the city of Athens is obliged to either honor the ordinances on its books or to repeal them so they are no longer on the books.
While The Athens NEWS found examples of towing rate regulations on the books for various other municipalities around the state, nobody was able to provide clear answers on whether those local laws were being enforced. Athens likewise still has the towing regulation ordinances on its books, but they are not being enforced as per the city officials' current interpretation of Ohio Revised Code.
The Athens Police Department has a list of local tow companies that it rotates through when having a vehicle impounded.
While the rates for the local companies are similar, they are not the same across the board.
Athens Towing charges $45 for "show-up" fees, $125 for police impoundment and $20 per day storage.
Autotech charges $95 for police impound plus $3.50 per mile and $20 a day for storage; their "show-up" fee is $45 for a vehicle hooked-up and $30 if it's not.
IBX Towing charges $90 for police impound and $12 per day for storage; and a $45 "show-up fee" if the vehicle is hooked up, and $20 if it's not.
Pete's B-P/William's Towing charges $90 for police impound and $12 per day for storage and a $30 show-up fee.
Curtis Towing hung up on The Athens NEWS after learning the rates were being requested for a story.