It's a simple issue. You've parked your car somewhere you shouldn't have. You're in a lot that's marked "private property." Or, the lot is public, but the space you're in is reserved for customers of "Billy's Bistro" and you go into "Donna's Deli" instead. Boom. A spotter calls you in, a wrecker grabs your car, and before you can put your mustard on your hotdog, your car is gone.
Or maybe you live in an apartment complex. You park in the wrong spot. You come out in the morning with your lunch plate in hand--you carry your lunch to work every day, not incidentally, because you're a young person just out of college with your first job and your first car and a lot of student loans to pay off, and you're struggling to make ends meet, and ...
Gone. Your car is gone.
Lawanda Ray, the recent NCSU graduate who related the latter story, assumed that her car had been stolen. Three hours later, somebody suggested that she call the towing company employed by her landlords at the Walnut Creek apartment complex. It cost her $125, plus an $18 cab ride, to recover her 1990 Honda Accord. "I'm still trying to get myself back on track (financially) after losing that money," Ray was saying two months later.
As for Pamela Hopkins, the North Raleigh mom whose car was towed out of a lot off Hillsborough Street one morning last month as she zipped into Bruegger's for a bagel and coffee ("to go--I was there four minutes, tops"), she's in no doubt that her car was stolen. With her purse and cell phone in it, visible on the seat, she adds. Getting them back cost her $120--and the tow-truck driver demanded cash. "It's extortion," Hopkins says. "I'm not coming downtown again."
Hopkins parked in a lot used by Bruegger's, but in one of the 10 spaces marked for Sylvia's Pizza, which doesn't sell a lot of slices at 10 a.m. Then again, maybe Sylvia's would have been her next stop, who knows? Not the wrecker, which she saw leaving the scene with her car as she emerged onto the street.
Stolen? Dave Permar, a lawyer who owns a downtown parking lot and contracts with a towing company himself, begs to differ. Permar says that if any stealing's occurred, it's by the car owners who appropriate spaces they don't belong in. There are 40,000 parking spaces in downtown Raleigh, Permar says, which is plenty to meet the demand. So why take one that's somebody else's property?
As this drama played out in front of the Raleigh City Council last week, it put some in mind of the plot from Les Miserables, with incorruptible Inspector Jovert determined to lock up the man who stole the loaf of bread. People are parking downtown in empty lots, or parking harmlessly in the wrong spaces, and their punishment--having their cars removed and taken to a far-off location until they can come up with the cash to get it back--would not seem to fit the "crime." This, at any rate, is how Mayor Charles Meeker sees it. Meeker thinks it's a major impediment to the city's efforts at downtown revitalization. It's also a safety problem, he says, when people are left stranded downtown late for parking in a lot that won't be used by anybody until the next morning.
So Meeker's been trying for more than a year to get some rules enacted about when a car can be towed and when it can't--and how much the wreckers can charge. He's tried, with no success, to get late-night towing banned. His latest proposal is to require towing companies to notify the police whenever they grab a car, and to staff their impound lots 24 hours a day so people can get them back. He also wants to require them to take credit cards and checks, and to charge no more than $85, plus $10 a day for "storage."
And he thinks tow-truck companies should be licensed. How many operate in Raleigh? No one knows. (Best guesses: More than 100.) How many cars are towed per year? No one knows.
The conservative members of the council, however, cannot bring themselves to tell a private lot owner that he or she can't do what they want with their property. Councilor Mike Regan, for example, says that as long as the signage is clear, he's not inclined to change the rules at all.
At last count, Meeker had just two supporters for his plan--councilors Janet Cowell and Thomas Crowder. Councilor Neal Hunt has floated the idea that lot owners who don't chain their entrances not be allowed to tow at night. Councilors Philip Isley, Jessie Taliaferro and James West are calling for further study.
Further study? This was enough to drive Margaret Mullen, the executive director of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, to--well, when she heard that, she bolted out of her seat and raced to the front of the council chamber to be heard. "Do something!" she exclaimed.
Mullen said she heard about Raleigh's predatory towing problems the first day she arrived on the job two years ago, and she's heard about it virtually every day since. She's given the council the ordinances used by Atlanta, Charlotte and other cities, all of which protect their downtown visitors from predatory towing. "I spend 20 percent of my time on this," Mullen exclaimed. "I counted, and I've been to 75 meetings about it. ... Pass something. I need this off the front pages of the newspaper."