Taking sides in a tug-of-war that has long divided towing companies in Anne Arundel County, the County Council is expanding the pool of towing operators that will be called by county police after accidents and motorist arrests.
The council voted 4-2 Monday to create a rotation system, ending the police department's practice of licensing one operator for each of 17 areas in the county.
"The system was working, but it wasn't working fairly and equitably," said Councilman John J. Klocko III, a Crofton Republican. "This was just a fairness issue."
The vote was a victory for towing operators like Kenny Catlett, a south county tower who said he felt frozen out of police work by what he called "the old boys' network." The 17 towing companies insisted they were not opposed to sharing the business but questioned whether there was enough business to go around.
"No matter how many towers you bring in, if they don't get tow jobs, they're not going to stay," said Marc Bowen, whose company is one of 17 used by police.
How the new system will work is uncertain, said Cpl. Robert Squire of the police department's traffic safety division. One unknown is how many towing operators will apply for rotation, and Squire said he does not "have a clue."
The department must set boundaries for 13 geographic regions that will replace the current 17. The department also must determine the number of companies included in each of the 13 rotations. The council left those details up to the department.
"Until we get an idea how many apply and what areas they would be eligible to work, it's really hard to speculate at this time," Squire said.
To be eligible for a police towing license, companies will have to have three tow trucks, a storage facility in the county and the capability to respond within 20 minutes.
The county will charge an annual application fee of $250 and a license fee of $25 a truck.
In an average year, police request between 8,000 and 9,000 tows for reasons such as accidents, driver arrests, abandoned vehicles and seizure of vehicles during drug arrests. Towing companies can charge $55 per tow during the day, although the county is looking at raising that to $90.
The police department was satisfied with the present system, Squire said, but understood why other tow operators wanted a share of the business. Once, more than 40 towing companies were on the department's list, but Squire said some companies dropped out over the years.
Squire said there is no guarantee every interested and qualified operator will be put in a rotation. That possibility concerned Councilwoman Cathleen M. Vitale, a Severna Park Republican who joined Council Chairman Daniel E. Klosterman Jr. in opposing the bill.
Vitale said she worries that "five years down the road we'll be in the same position," with towing operators claiming they are being unfairly denied a share of police towing business. She said she was not sure how to avoid such a scenario.
The bill, debated for three months, nearly went down to defeat. Councilwoman Pamela G. Beidle, a Linthicum Democrat, went back and forth before supporting it. Had she opposed the measure, the vote would have been 3-3 (Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk missed the meeting to attend a Colorado conference with her husband), and the bill would have died.
"In my heart the bill is the right idea," Beidle said. "I think we need to open it up because we shouldn't restrict trade."
But she said it bothered her that so many details remain to be worked out.
She said she was swayed by a comment from Councilman Bill D. Burlison, a Democrat from Odenton. Burlison said "nitpicking" on some of the details should not obscure the bill's overall benefits.