City Council strikes down police impound and towing contract


Wichita’s City Council rejected a contract with nine towing companies for impounding and emergency towing service for the Wichita Police Department.

Wichita’s City Council rejected a contract with nine towing companies for impounding and emergency towing service for the Wichita Police Department.

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The Wichita City Council rejected contracts with nine towing companies that impound vehicles for the Wichita Police Department, with one member saying the move hurts small businesses and another accusing the firms of price gouging at the expense of some of city’s most vulnerable residents.

The move represents a failed, last-minute renegotiation of a contract that’s set to expire June 1. The City Council delayed the contract earlier this month in hopes the companies would alter their proposal. That did not happen.

Mayor Brandon Whipple and council members Mike Hoheisel and Maggie Ballard voted to strike down the deal. Whipple called a special meeting for next Wednesday where the contract and rate structures could be reconsidered.

“We went into negotiations in good faith with the anticipation of hopefully coming to a compromise with the increase of fees as we are hoping that folks recognize that inflation hurts everyone,” Whipple said, “including people who have to pay to get their car out so that folks are less likely to lose their car and the vehicle that will likely cost them their job and could cost them their house, and it came back exactly the same. There was no room to negotiate.”

Ballard, who sat in on a failed re-negotiation with the wrecking companies earlier this month, said they wouldn’t budge on their proposed rate hikes.

“I understand inflation and all of that, but I’m also concerned about our citizens,” Ballard said. “I understand that there’s consequences that are in jeopardy when someone does make a mistake, but some of this appears to be price gouging, for me, personally, and it’s hard for me to support.”

At question is whether the city should approve a new contract with towing companies that allows them to cut their hours and raise prices on nearly every fee charged to residents who have their vehicles impounded. Under the contract, the fees would continue increasing by 4% annually for four years.

Tuttle, who supported the contract, said the city should approve rate increases to help small businesses. She challenged Whipple’s claim that the rate increases could result in residents losing their jobs or homes.

“The average increase per incident would probably $50 for the individual, so I’m doubtful that that would put someone in the position of losing their home,” Tuttle said. “I’m also cognizant of the fact that these occurrences happen rarely. Somebody doesn’t get their car impounded by the police on a frequent basis. So the fact of jeopardizing our community members’ jobs or homes is probably limited.”

More than 1,700 vehicles were towed under the city’s contract last year. More than 600 of those were sold at auction, meaning their owners could not pay to get them out or that they had been abandoned. The tow companies made $582,856 on those sales, City Purchasing Manager Melinda Walker said.

“I worry for the community members that this may impact, but it’s a relatively small number of community members,” Tuttle said. “I also worry about small business in our community, and I think this is an example of a cohort of small businesses that are feeling the strain of the current inflation rates and are asking now to have some recovery from that.”

Council member Brandon Johnson, after initially voting against the contracts, proposed a compromise that would have kept the wrecking companies’ price hikes in place but eliminated the city’s own $30 processing fee. But his motion failed 3-3, with Johnson joining council members Bryan Frye and Becky Tuttle on the losing side. Council member Jeff Blubaugh was absent.

The tow companies would have cut hours and raised prices for residents whose vehicles had been impounded by Wichita police, including wrecked vehicles at accident scenes and vehicles considered abandoned if they are parked on a public street for more than 48 hours. After a certain period, the companies may auction the vehicles, keeping most of the earnings and sharing up to $125 with the city on each sale.

The move does not affect private towing services. But it leaves the city without a contract for 24/7 emergency impounds. If no agreement can be reached, the city has five of its own tow trucks.

Hoheisel said he could not vote for the price increases because it pushes the cost onto people who may already face court fees, joblessness or other financial barriers.

“It’s just tough to look at it and say that we’re not trying to help people dig out of the problem instead of becoming entrapped in the problem,” Hoheisel said. “We’ve got to really look at what is the actual point of our criminal justice system — the best possible outcome — and that’s people learn their lesson and get back on track, and sometimes piling on extra debt and extra barriers on it is counterproductive to what we’re really trying to do.”

Former City Council member Greg Ferris, a lobbyist for the wrecking companies, told the City Council that the contracts are the best deal the city can hope for and there’s no room to negotiate. The nine companies are Arrow Wrecker Service, Bud Roat Towing, Kens Auto Tow, Kidds Towing, Millers Towing, Reliable Towing, Tow All, Tow Service Inc. and Wichita Towing.

“Don’t blame us because somebody can’t get their car out because they got it towed because the city called us and asked us to tow it,” Ferris said.

“If you want to do something about that, you can do that. But don’t tell us — as a business — that we have to be a charity. There are charities out there that do that, but also the city is the overriding entity who towed that vehicle, not us. We didn’t call you.”

Ballard acknowledged that towing costs money, but she pushed back against Ferris’ suggestion that lower fees would be considered charity work.

“The businesses aren’t a charity, but the city is basically handing the tow truck companies, I think, $2.2 million over a five-year period,” Ballard said. “I would say that’s a pretty significant chunk of business.”

Ferris agreed.

“You’re not paying, but you have handed that business to us,” Ferris said. “But for every one of those that you hand us, we have significant expenses. . . . If we lower these fees, that means we have to raise the fees for everybody else we tow for because you felt these fees were too high. . . . Their position is they don’t make enough money on tows at this rate to continue to do it, and that was their position from day one.”

The tow companies are proposing the following rate increases: 14% on light duty towing ($105 to $120), 20% on winching ($25 per 15 minutes to $30 per 15 minutes), 33% on waiting time fees ($15 per 15 minutes to $30 per 15 minutes), almost 17% on storage fees ($30 a day to $35 a day) and 50% on lot fees ($20 to $30) — along with 150% in title verification fees ($20 to $50), 51% on dolly service fees ($43 to $65), 40% on tows to police facilities ($100 to $140), 18% on rollover/overturn fees ($55 to $65), 25% on tarp fees ($20 to $25) and 20% on heavy-duty towing ($250 to $300). The per-mile charge would remain flat at $4.50 a mile.

Council members and city staff are expected to decide on a new plan by next week’s special meeting.

Frye pressed Whipple on the decision to cancel the contract without a plan in place.

“I just want to know what our next steps are now without impound contracts,” Frye said. “What are we going to do? What is our option when it expires at the end of the month and our renewal was supposed to take place starting June 1.”

In response, Whipple criticized the city manager for waiting until May to bring the contract to the City Council.

“I understand it puts staff in a bad place, but staff should never assume that council will vote a certain way, and never leverage the timeline against the freedom for the elected body to make decisions based off our constituents,” Whipple said. “I’m sure we’re going to have more discussion about this, and we’ll look for another plan,” Whipple said. “Perhaps this contract comes back. But it’s OK if there’s not a plan at this very moment. I hope it’s something that we can take a deeper dive into.”

Chance Swaim covers investigations for The Wichita Eagle. His work has been recognized with national and local awards, including a George Polk Award for political reporting, a Betty Gage Holland Award for investigative reporting and a Victor Murdock Award for journalistic excellence. You may contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @byChanceSwaim.


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