The kind of highway robbery that’s totally legal in Wichita | Opinion

Amid the haze that generally obscures the actions of our city government, one fact shines blindingly through: Auto towing in Wichita is badly broken and getting worse.

On Monday, I wrote the story of Vernette Chance, a 76-year-old woman who got in a minor accident and had to pay a $515 bill to a towing company to get her damaged car back from its clutches. It’s my contention that’s the legalized form of highway robbery.

And it’s all the more infuriating because Chance has towing coverage as part of her membership in AAA, so she wouldn’t have had to pay anything at all if she’d been informed that she could refuse the police-initiated tow and just call her auto club.

So on Tuesday, as City Hall threw its latest cash bouquet to the tow companies, an assistant city attorney took to the podium to explain why I’m wrong.

“Because of some misinformation that’s been printed, I think I need to explain a little bit about what types of tows the city has,” said Sharon Dickgrafe. “The city has impounds, which are currently handled exclusively by an impound contract. The city has what are called emergency wrecker tows. Those are tows that if I have a wreck on Kellogg, the police need it cleaned up in a certain period of time and wreckers are licensed pursuant to that process and ordinance. The third type of tows are purely private tows — my kid wrecks his car, he makes it to the driveway and now has four flat tires, I need it towed somewhere, I call the wrecking company.”

Dickgrafe didn’t include the fourth type: When someone parks on private property, and the property owner doesn’t want the car there, he can call a tow truck to have it hauled off. Actually, though it wasn’t made clear, that was one of the types of tows the city voted to raise the rates for at Tuesday’s meeting.

And maybe there’s even a fifth type: routine accident tows that are incorrectly stamped as impounds at the top of the consumer’s bill — which is the kind of bill Chance got.

As far as I can tell from reading the delineated ordinance that was passed Tuesday, the City Council raised the allowable price of a private tow from a maximum of $90 to $120 — plus mileage, up from $4 to $4.70 per mile. The allowable fee for storage was raised from $25 to $36 per day.

Rates will rise automatically at 4% a year until further notice.

The council also eliminated price caps on storage of cars that are police-initiated tows from accident scenes, so sky’s the limit there. It already costs $40 a day for what is essentially parking space rental.

I, and the council, also found out Tuesday that a plan instituted last year to let people pay their towing and storage charges in installments has been a whopping failure.

Of 26 people who applied to pay over time, two have been approved and a third is a maybe. Everyone else was ineligible for one reason or another.

That prompted Mayor Brandon Whipple to request an audit to figure out what went wrong — and if the program can be made more helpful. He and council members Maggie Ballard and Mike Hoheisel all asked if it’s possible to expand eligibility so more people can use it.

That’s a good start, but it should be coupled with a city investigation into why towing prices are so outrageous in the first place. If you just call a tow company, it’ll haul your car from anywhere to anywhere in the city limits for $75 to $90. Let the police make the call, or pick from the police list of approved companies, and it’s hundreds.

Another salient question would be why towing charges for impoundments that are connected to criminal activity are now capped at a lower rate than the charges for innocent residents who get in an accident, or just need their car taken from Point A to Point B.

It’s messed up, and the city’s technical, piecemeal approach is creating a lot of hardship for a lot of people. City Hall needs to drop the mental and semantic gymnastics and quit trying to justify unjust rates.

The council needs to figure out what’s going on with towing at the street level — and then pass an ordinance setting rates that are fair and equitable.

Hint: That’s not $515 for an 8-mile tow and four days’ rental of a parking space.