Not so fast

Local towing companies object to proposed junk vehicle abatement plan

HOOKED <br>Wes Brown, owner of Brown’s Towing, prepares to tow an abandoned car from a driveway along 19th Street. Brown and other Chico towing operators say they fear a loss of business should the city join the county in an abandoned vehicle abatement plan.

Wes Brown, owner of Brown’s Towing, prepares to tow an abandoned car from a driveway along 19th Street. Brown and other Chico towing operators say they fear a loss of business should the city join the county in an abandoned vehicle abatement plan.

Photo by Tom Angel

Tow, tow, tow your car: A car that with current license registration cannot be considered abandoned until it has sat in one spot for seven consecutive days without being moved.

When the Chico City Council voted Aug. 6 to join (and validate) Butte County’s plan to form an abandoned-vehicle-abatement program to rid our streets and yards and open spaces of unwanted cars and trucks, it left one fairly key group out of the debate: the towing companies that would actually do the work.

Wes Brown, owner of Brown’s Towing, says Chico area towing firms stand to be hurt financially if the plan is adopted. What’s more, the local companies have never been consulted and were not notified of the meeting in which their livelihoods were at stake.

“We won’t make any money if it goes through,” Brown said this week from his small but organized office at his business on the corner of Eighth and Cedar streets in west Chico. In fact, he says, the companies will probably lose money.

Brown says he has heard from a source in the Chico Police Department that the owner of Chico Auto and Truck Recycling on East Park Avenue has already approached the city and offered to take each abandoned car for free.

“That’s because they part them out and make money,” Brown said. “We don’t do that.”

Jerome Johnson, owner of Chico Auto and Truck Recycling, said he had spoken only with the Chico Police Department and had no interest in stealing business or “pissing off” local towing companies.

Brown said he attended the Aug. 6 meeting because he had heard about the abandoned-vehicle plan a day or two earlier. He spoke against the concept but felt like his words fell on deaf ears. “The [Enterprise-Record] reported that the towing companies were in favor,” he said. “That’s not true.”

The day after the City Council voted in concept to go along with the plan, six of the eight Chico towing companies signed and sent a letter to the council asking its members to pull out of the program.

“After much consideration of the possible outcome of this program, it is the unanimous opinion of the towers listed below that this program should not be approved,” the letter says.

“While the current system for removal of abandoned vehicles on city streets is not perfect, it is working,” the letter continues. “The undersigned Chico’s Towing Service Providers are willing to accept the good (paying calls) with the bad (non-paying abandoned) until a fair and equitable abatement program can be instituted.”

The letter ends with a request that the towing companies be allowed to participate in future discussions on the matter.

The plan, which is being pushed by the county because it needs Chico on board to get certified by the state, calls for a hike of $1 in registration fees per private vehicle and $3 per commercial vehicle. That translates into $175,148 in revenue to run the program. The county would take about 5 percent of that for administration purposes and the five Butte County cities—Chico, Paradise, Gridley, Oroville and Biggs—would be reimbursed from that revenue for each abandoned vehicle towed in their respective jurisdictions. They, in turn would use their money to pay the towing companies anywhere from $20 to $25 per vehicle.

Currently, Brown is contracted with the Chico Police Department and the California Highway Patrol on a rotating basis with seven other local towers, which means they are called by turn to respond to accidents or to remove cars with expired registration or deemed abandoned.

Right now, Brown says, he can get up to $65 from a wrecking yard for each abandoned car he brings in. But when the abandoned-vehicle plan goes through, he and the other tow companies fear they will be cut out by Chico Auto and Truck Recycling and its reported offer to take abandoned vehicles for free.

Brown, who looks like he could be the brother of former big league homerun crusher Mark McGwire, got a call from the Chico Police Department on the day he was being interviewed for this story. A car had been reported abandoned on East 19th Street. The car, a white, worn Chevy Manza, had plates that had expired in April 2001.

A resident, who had five vehicles of his own in his front yard, said he had awoken that morning to find the Manza in his driveway, so he called the police. Had the car not been out of registration, it would have had to remain in the driveway until the owner was located and notified or seven days had passed.

One towing operator who did attend the City Council meeting was Don Wright, owner of KC Towing of Gridley and South Oroville. The talkative Wright said the CHP asked him to attend.

“They told me, ‘We need to see your smiling face and your support,’ “ he explained.

Wright says he currently loses on the order of $60,000 per year hauling abandoned vehicles, based on the average cost of $142 per car. He said if he were reimbursed $23 per car through the program, it would substantially lessen his yearly losses.

Wright says he loses money because he is not close to any wrecking yards and the distance to tow an abandoned car to the nearest such yard more than eats up any money he receives from the yard.

Wright is from Marin County, which was the first county in the state to start an abandoned-vehicle-abatement program, back in 1978. Now 32 other counties have followed suit.

“Chico is only one-tenth of the county’s problem,” he said, claiming there are as many as 4,000 abandoned cars in Butte County each year.

“Those [Chico towing] companies have never worked out in other counties,” Wright said. “They don’t understand how it works.”

He said towing operators picking up and hauling abandoned cars is no different than a private citizen picking up litter. “This is my duty,” he said. “I don’t like it, but it’s my duty.”

The bluntly honest Brown, who told the council, “I like to make money,” is a bit more pragmatic.

“This program will cut out the middle guy," he said. "The guys who’ve been doing this for 30 years for nothing."