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The Hot Button

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The issue: After Pittsburgh drivers complained about aggressive tactics used by tow-truck drivers earlier this year, highlighted during the winter's heavy snowfall, Pittsburgh officials took steps to rein them in. Under a new ordinance, tow companies and their drivers must pay new annual licensing fees. They must also notify police about every car they tow; auto storage lots must be open 24 hours and take credit cards. Towing companies have complied, but have a gripe of their own: Under a previously existing city law, tow companies are permitted to charge a maximum of $110 to tow a car from a parking space where it does not belong. That rate hasn't changed since 1992, and towing companies say a change is overdue

What the companies want: Mark Travis, owner of Travis Towing, says city council's regulations helped "legitimize" the towing business. "I think council honestly wanted to better the conditions that we operate under ... and they did a great job," Travis says. At the same time, "We should also be making a legitimate wage. We get demonized for what we do, but we are legitimate business owners with families to support and all we're asking for is a reasonable cost-of-living increase." Travis says he would like to see an increase that kept pace with inflation -- which he estimates would raise towing fees to about $171 per car towed. "[T]ires, gas, equipment and permit fees cost a lot more than they did in 1992," he says. "We're not asking for an arm and a leg."

The likelihood that they'll get it: City Councilor Doug Shields, who sponsored the towing reforms, says tow company owners are entitled to the public hearing. He says he initially left a rate increase out of his legislation because a lot of companies were already charging over the amount set by law, but no one was enforcing the cost regulations. Shields says he invited the tow-truck companies to lobby council for a rate increase. Shields says he's neutral on the increase, though he adds "it's more prudent to operate for a year under the new law to see if it has solved the problems," before discussing new rates. In any case, Shields says $171 seems too high: "I wouldn't accept that at all. ... They'd need to open the books and show us a breakdown of the costs." 

What's next: Travis submitted a citizen's petition for a public hearing on a fee increase. The hearing will be held at 10 a.m. on Thu., Dec. 18 in council chambers on the fifth floor of the City-County Building, 414 Grant St., Downtown. Public comment will be taken. 

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