MILWAUKEE - City officials want towing companies to turn over their receipts. But the towing industry says - not so fast!
It all started with a FOX6 investigation. Now, what we caught on hidden camera could lead to a change in city ordinance.
It was June 27, 2019, and the FOX6 Investigators were keeping watch over a parking lot on Milwaukee's east side. According to public records obtained by FOX6, it is one of the most frequent targets of Always Towing, which has made a cottage industry out of towing unauthorized vehicles away from private property.
Our hidden cameras were rolling as an Always Towing operator loaded a 2009 Toyota Corolla onto a flatbed truck using nothing more than a basic tow chain. But when the owners of that car went to pick it up from the tow lot the next morning, they got a bill for $348.48. That included a $125 charge for the use of "special equipment," even though our video doesn't show anything special being used to load the car.
"We got charged for something they didn't do," said Kevin Ryan, owner of the car.
Our investigation found that Always Towing routinely charges a $125 special equipment fee for everyday removal of cars from private property, even though state law limits the charge to "unusual" circumstances, like towing a vehicle that weighs more than 10,000 pounds or a vehicle that is parked in a location with spatial constraints that require additional equipment for extraction.
Always Towing told the car's owner that FOX6 News only showed the car being "loaded," but not "unloaded." Therefore, their request for a refund of the special equipment fee was denied. But when FOX6 asked about the "unloading" process after a city meeting with tow operators, a company representative refused to answer questions.
"This is an opportunity to increase transparency," said Michael Murphy, 10th District Milwaukee Alderman.
Murphy told members of the city's public safety committee on Thursday, September 12th, that the "excellent reporting done by Channel 6" had prompted him, as well as 3rd District Alderman Nik Kovac, to introduce legislation that would require tow companies to submit electronic, itemized receipts to the city for every non-consensual tow they perform.
"So we can find out," Kovac said, "are they abusing the definition of unusual?"
Last year, Kovac warned Always towing that he found their practice of routinely adding a charge for special equipment unacceptable.
"Hoping that would scare them," Kovac said. "Clearly, through your reporting and the complaints you got, it didn't scare them."
"The industry has not been very cooperative," Murphy said.
Now, it's Always Towing that's asking the city to cooperate.
"Could you please consult the industry before you start passing legislation? asked Michael Maistelman, attorney for Always Towing and other towing companies in the city.
Maistelman says his clients want a chance to negotiate any new ordinance with city staff before it's brought up for a vote.
"I only think it's fair," he said.
"We want it to be transparent," Murphy said. "I think they like to keep it opaque and closed so that we., the public, can't see whether or not there is abuse going on."
In the end, the city's public safety committee, chaired by 8th District Alderman Bob Donovan, agreed to wait a few weeks before taking a vote.
Kovac says no matter what discussions happen "behind closed doors" between the city and towing representatives, it will all be dealt with in public view in a public meeting eventually, likely within a few weeks.
Meanwhile, Karen Schmitting and Kevin Ryan, owners of the car featured in our investigation, have sued Always Towing in small claims court. That case is set to go to court September 30th. They've also asked the city to revoke Always Towing's license. That could lead to a revocation hearing in the next month or two, but no earlier than October 1st.
After the public safety committee meeting Thursday, Always Towing representatives declined to comment.