Friday, August 29, 2008

Towing Operators Take Springfield, Massachusetts On A Ride photo, West Springfield, Mass.

It sounds like something out of Star Wars: in Springfield, Massachusetts there is not just one company but a "towing alliance" which tows vehicles for the city. And--surprise, surprise--like so many OTHER cities in this nation, Springfield is caught up in a tawdry fiscal scandal involving towing.

Gasp! Has "the alliance" gone over to the Dark Side?

Well, according to...

..."the alliance," it is actually THE CITY which owes money to THE ALLIANCE. Some details can be found in this article (click here) in The Republican newspaper. For example, tow trucks were supposed to be inspected by the police, but it appears inspected trucks weren't always the vehicles used. Required paperwork such as--oh, my word--the all-important tow slips provided to police was only provided off and on, according to city officials.

The City Auditor says the company is out of compliance. "The alliance" says otherwise. Gee, who are you going to believe; the City Auditor or towing operators who don't even turn over tow slips to police when they're supposed to?

Other cities have better deals

Some cities--like Escondito, California--actually make the towing operators pay big bucks for the privilege of towing cars on behalf of the municipal government, like I blogged about here.

In contrast, "the alliance" pays Springfield a mere $2,050 a month to store vehicles at a city-owned impound lot, according to The Republican. The city gets a $30 administrative fee for every vehicle towed unless the tow was later deemed improper by the police. GEE, IS IT ANY WONDER--!!!!

Oh, excuse me, I was nearly shouting, there.

I was going to say: is it any wonder "the alliance" doesn't properly turn over its towing slips? It sounds like vehicles "improperly" towed may end up becoming a cost "the alliance" is forced to absorb. (Offset by salvage or auction value) Therefore, better to not turn over your towing slips so the tow can't be scrutinized as easily.

Adding insult to injury

Not content with trying to rip off Springfield city government, "the alliance" now wants permission to sell "used cars" (read: seized cars owners couldn't afford to redeem) out of the city's impound lot.

"The alliance" under investigation

A report about the situation--who owes money to who, and exactly why--is due September 8, 2008. The Republican says the numbers appear to crunch out this way, however: with 8,000 tows done from May 2007 to last month, and with $49.17 per tow due under the contract, that means the city should receive nearly $400,000. Has the city gotten that much?


Confusion over the numbers

The president of "the alliance" says the number of tows is more like 7,000. However, the police sergeant who oversees towing says it isn't always clear which of the subcontractors in "the alliance" performed which particular tows. Rival tow companies accuse the city of going easy on "the alliance." Yeah, if you want to get the dirt on a towing company (or even an "alliance") just ask their competition.

Time for talk is over

City Councilor Timothy J. Rooke is showing impatience with "the alliance," and has said the "time for talk is over" in light of issues of non-compliance, even as the lawyer for "the alliance" stresses trying to work out some kind of resolution through negotiation.

Of course. And all the while, "the alliance" will be towing people's cars, submitting who-knows-what for paperwork, and angling to sell seized cars right out of the city's impound lot to the same low-income people routinely victimized by the increasing national trend of predatory and abusive towing. Didn't anybody see that new "Clone Wars" movie? When somebody is stressing "negotiation," they're probably stalling to outflank your forces.

Just how much is owed?

An earlier Republican article about "the alliance" (click here) seemed to estimate "the alliance" owes $81,000 to the City of Springfield, some of which includes utilities.

Dude, where's my car?

More maddening is the eternal question of what has happened to a car after it is towed. The City--and Councilor Rooke, in particular--accuse "the alliance" of incomplete vehicle status reports and "insufficient documentation of the disposal of salvaged or auctioned vehicles," according to the Republic.

This is the kind of thing which calls for high-tech solutions, better software, that kind of thing. The days when "Cooter" could thumb through a greasy pink pile of slips and tell them Duke boys what happened to Daisy's cute little Jeep are over. People should be able to track their car via the internet. This is the better world was created to push for. So here I am pushing for it.

Juicy blog-o-sphere details

Though the Republican article is good, and was my initial source to learn of this run-of-the-mill towing industry scandal (yawn. Another day, another ugly towing industry scandal) a local blog called "The Intruder" had a lot more details and discussion about the conflict.

According to the intruder, (click for article) the city's contract with "the alliance" is only 14 months old. That's how l0ng it took Springfield, Massachusetts to run into trouble with its towing contractor. There have apparently been a lot of letters and notifications, plus disgruntled residents.

The Intruder also outlined some much-needed details about "the alliance," describing it as an "umbrella organization" composed originally (stomp, stomp) of nine towing subcontractors. That little word "originally" hides a sordid little saga, and I'll be getting to that. (Thanks to the article from The Intruder, of course)

Digging through the guts for info-nuggets

The Intruder article went right into the messy paper innards of the contract with the city, the kind of policy wonk detail which would bore most readers of a publication like The Republican to tears. For example, "the alliance" promised DAILY COMMUNICATION with the police department project manager to go over issues and concerns. That hasn't happened. The city is firing off letters, not having easy daily chats.

"The alliance" made all kinds of promises in the dark, as it turned out, including such whoppers as GPS implementation for monitoring tow vehicle progress and providing "scanned copies of letters" to the drivers whose vehicles were towed.

What did "the alliance" deliver to the City of Springfield? The Intruder summary, apparently taken directly from a "draft audit report" dated March 2008, is damning. And because it's so damning, I'm going to present it verbatim, with profuse thanks to The Intruder for being the source of this information.

* Fees owed to the city, 1,429 tows which amounts to $71,093. (Note how different this number was from the Republican article. What is up, there?)

* Late payments. Insufficient documentation on the fate of salvaged and auctioned vehicles.

* NO ONLINE COMMUNICATIONS OR REMOTE ACCESS TO TOWING DATA. (This is one of the issues I'm always pushing as a good solution to predatory and abusive towing, so I can't help capitalizing it)

* Unpaid utilities; $10,285.49. Incomplete, improper form filings. Failure to submit CORI/SORB reviews for employees. (I don't know what that is, but I have to wonder if it involves background checks on tow truck drivers, a notoriously felonious lot)

* Not all vehicles equipped with "GPS functionality." (I wonder what that means, and it seemed like the author of the Intruder article may have wondered, too. I think it might mean: sometimes no GPS, sometimes the GPS doesn't work, and sometimes--as my drill sergeant used to say--to find the root of the technical problem you must "check operator headspace capacity.")


Subsequent report: even more damning

Gotta keep digging for those info-nuggets, and that's what The Intruder did.

* According to a later "contract compliance review," not all vehicles were equipped with GPS devices. (I kind of thought that might have been part of the "functionality" issue) NO DOCUMENTATION WHATSOEVER on individual drivers. (Can you say "scary prison tattoos?")

* "The alliance" said it was granted an exemption to the 600 vehicle storage requirement, but can't present any proof.

* Failing to post towing and storage rates. (This is how money ends up in somebody's pocket where it doesn't belong) Failing to tell owners within 36 hours of vehicles stored at the facility. (This is why we need REMOTE ACCESS TO TOWING DATA for members of the public)

* Failing to notify police--even one time--of unclaimed vehicles. The notion of no unclaimed vehicles at a facility this large is just...impossible to believe.

A detailed and damning indictment

The (rather long) Intruder article continues in this vein for quite some time, and rather than replicating their detailed content and commenting about it, here is an "oily thumbnail summary."

* Rival CJ Towing collected a load of damaging information about "the alliance" and distributed it. The info mostly consisted of city letters and complaints from residents "in distress" about the way they were treated.

* "Unilateral" and un-contracted, un-negotiated charges by "the alliance," sometimes amounting to thousands of dollars for an individual vehicle.

* Who is even part of this "alliance?" There is considerable evidence the membership is unstable and fluid, rather like the way you never know which way the "Hut clan" will throw its allegiance in the recent Clone Wars cartoon.

* Mascaro's Service Station was part of "the alliance," but fell out of favor with "alliance president Jones" after pointing out problems with "the way things were done." What were some of these little bitty problems?

"Bills need to be paid, employees need to be paid," according to Ron Mascaro.

* In one instance, a towing dispatcher was described as "incoherent."

* "President Jones" apparently has filed for bankruptcy. Twice.

The "sub-blogosphere" weighs in

* Somebody who apparently has inside dope--but preferred to comment anonymously--tried to dish up a lot of dope on "alliance" critic Ron Mascaro, saying, "he went years and years not paying any taxes to the city for the properties he has on Walnut Street and Florence Street, and Hancock Street under the name MRL Associates." A member of the Mascaro family got on the blog, and provided a detailed and (I thought) rather satisfactory rebuttal.

* Councilor Rooke commented on the blog, crediting the blog story with raising the issue and getting the rest of the city council interested.

Ah, I love being a blogger.

Who suffers?

But at the end of the day, who suffers? It is the citizens who are subjected to shoddy towing practices and can't find their vehicles. Finding the bad guys in this scandal is the first step, but what should be done to FIX the problem? Clearly, there needs to be a more modern, high-tech system in place which allows a very open process where abuses can't occur so easily and cars can be tracked from beginning to end.

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