Owners of 26 vehicles that were towed during a Jan. 3 snow emergency in Lower Macungie Township had to pay towing fees totaling as much as $400 to get them back.
Now those people will be getting $65 refunds “as a good faith concession” from the towing company.
While township manager Bruce Fosselman explained residents had plenty of warnings to move their cars before they were towed, at Thursday night’s township meeting he also acknowledged the towing charges were high.
The towing company – Upper Milford-based Mechanics Plus Towing – has informed township officials it will lower its rates to keep the township’s business in future snow emergencies
But at least two of the five township commissioners want to obtain bids to see if Lower Macungie can get a better deal on future towing fees.
Some of the people who had their cars towed because they didn’t heed township warnings complained to township commissioners -- including new commissioners Ron Beitler and Brian Higgins—at their Jan. 6 reorganizing meeting.
On Thursday, Fosselman gave commissioners a detailed report reviewing what happened.
The township declared a snow emergency at 3 p.m. Jan. 2 and gave residents nine hours to remove their cars from streets designated for snow emergencies.
Fosselman said public notification about that declaration included television, radio, Facebook, Twitter, mass email and a posting on the township’s web site.
He explained snow emergencies are declared when at least six inches of snow fall.
The manager said the township has an obligation to its residents to keep roads clear so police, ambulances and fire trucks can get to their homes if emergencies occur.
The township will continue to have cars towed when necessary, said Fosselman.
“Getting snow off those streets is priority number one.”
A couple of residents at the Jan 6 meeting told commissioners their streets weren’t plowed even after their cars were towed away.
Towing isn’t done to make money for the township, said Fosselman. He said it also isn’t done to upset people, but added “unfortunately” that’s what happened this month.
“I don’t think we did anything wrong, but we can always learn from an incident like we just had here.”
He said in the future, the township may do even more to notify vehicle owners parked on snow emergency routes. He said ideas being discussed include robo-calling, phone chaining and putting notices on vehicles.
Many of those ideas came from residents at the Jan. 6 meeting.
Fosselman said Lower Macungie began towing cars on its designated snow emergency routes in 2008.
“This idea that we haven’t done it before is not true,” said the manager. But he also acknowledged: “We haven’t had many snow emergencies.”
Ben Galiardo, the township’s code enforcement officer, said 40 cars were towed during a 2008 snow emergency “and there was no public outcry whatsoever.”
Fosselman said 46 cars could have been towed on Jan. 3, but 20 parked on snow emergency routes were moved before the tow trucks arrived.
The $65 refunds
Mechanics Plus Towing is making a $65-per-vehicle concession, announced Fosselman. He said the towing company will write one check to the township, which will write individual refund checks.
The manager said a letter will be sent with those checks, explaining what happened and that “Mechanics Plus did nothing wrong. They did what we instructed them to do.”
Higgins agreed the towing company was acting on the township’s behalf – although he indicated the township should have known what it was charging.
Higgins said issuing the partial refund checks shows that township officials are “responding to the citizens who came to us with a problem. We are responding to our citizens whether they broke the rules or not. They’re still out over $300. But they came to us and asked for help and we’ve done what we can to help them.”
“I have no problem with towing these cars,” said Higgins, adding residents have an obligation to know and follow township rules. But he also said those snow emergency rules need to be consistently enforced.
Residents were warned in November
Fosselman said the November township newsletter included an article explaining procedures homeowners should follow in a snow emergency.
He read part of that article to commissioners: “If a snow emergency is declared, it is mandatory that all vehicles be removed from snow emergency routes. This allows access to snow-plowing equipment so roads can remain open to emergency vehicles. Each snow emergency route is clearly marked with signs.”
Fosselman told commissioners he went to the Clearview Manor and Shepherd Hills neighborhoods to see if some snow emergency routes were indeed properly posted with signs. “They were very well posted.” He’s not buying the argument that people did not know the signs exist.
The manager said that November newsletter article also warned: “Anyone in violation of snow emergency requirements may be subject to fines and costs up to $1,000 per incident. Vehicles in violation will be towed. Towing charges will be the responsibility of the vehicle owner, payable directly to the towing service and are not part of Lower Macungie revenue.”
The manager said that reminder has been placed in the township’s winter newsletter for the last six years.
Breakdown of towing charges
Fosselman said the towing rates seemed higher than normal because Mechanics Plus Towing imposed both towing and winching charges.
He said the towing charge alone was $200.
The company’s standard winching charge is an additional $175, “which I thought was extremely high,” admitted the manager.
But he said the towing company only charged $100 winching fees during the snow emergency, for a total fee of $300 per vehicle.
He said Mechanics Plus Towing also charged mileage and storage fees, which is why bills came to about $400 per vehicle.
“We felt the cost was a little bit more than it should have been,” said Fosselman. “The pricing got everyone upset – including me. I thought it was a little out of line.”
In conversations with the towing company since the controversy broke, Fosselman said in the future Mechanics Plus Towing will charge only $35 to $50 for winching, depending on the make of the car. He said the towing fee will remain $200.
He said the new rates are similar to those charged by other towing companies.
“We explained to them that we would like to work with them in the future,” said Fosselman. “They are a very good company. And they want to work with the township, to continue doing towing services.”
The solicitor’s opinion
At Fosselman’s request, township Solicitor Richard Somach reviewed state law and determined Pennsylvania does not set a limit on fees a towing company can charge.
Somach also determined the township can enact an ordinance setting such fees.
The solicitor told commissioners that municipalities with limits on towing fees benefit from having competing companies bidding to provide the service “so you’re able to drive the price down.”
Somach suggested Lower Macungie may not be able to do that, because other local towing companies don’t have enough staff, trucks or storage space to handle that many vehicles in a snow emergency.
He said the township could get competitive bidding if it has three or four qualified bidders, but predicted Mechanics Plus Towing will be the only towing company that can meet Lower Macungie’s requirements.
“Maybe and maybe not,” responded Commissioner James Lancsek. “That’s your opinion and I respect that, but we should still put it out for bid. We’ll find out. If that’s the only bidder, at least we’ll know. And we’ll have a price.
“Then when we have 30 people coming before us and saying ‘we didn’t know what the price was’ we can say ‘here it is’. It just protects the township. ”
Higgins agreed, saying the township has to seek bids, even if only one company submits a bid. “We have to look for a competitive fee.”
The commissioners’ public works committee, whose members are Higgins and Douglas Brown, will look into developing such an ordinance.
Fosselman said representatives from Mechanics Plus Towing want to meet with the public works committee to explain what’s involved in towing vehicles and their fees.
With the year just starting, that committee has not yet set any meeting dates, said Brown.
Next step for police study
Written copies of a police study, which was done for the township by Kutztown University professors Gary and Ann Marie Cordner, were made public at Thursday night’s commissioners meeting.
Ryan Conrad, new president of the five commissioners, said the study prominently will be posted on the township’s web site. (It’s already on there, but buried: item M under the agenda of Thursday night’s meeting.)
At the Dec. 19 township meeting, Gary Cordner presented a summary of the study. It focuses on three options for the township: continuing to rely on state police for coverage, creating a township police department or creating or joining a regional police department.
The study does not make a recommendation, although it states creating a township police department would cost Lower Macungie up to $5 million.
Lancsek suggested the township should review the police study and the commissioners should decide on an option. He said he’s been approached by township residents on numerous occasions who want to know what the township is going to do.
Fosselman agreed that at some point the commissioners should make a decision based on the study.
Former commissioner Roger C. Reis had hoped the board would vote to continue with state police protection at that Dec. 19 meeting, which was his last meeting, but others wanted to wait for the final written report – and for Higgins and Beitler to be able to weigh in on the issue.