Baltimore County is looking at changing its laws regulating police towing to break up a long-standing monopoly and allow minorities to participate in the $5 million-a-year business.
The county hoped it had done that in 1999 when it stretched the definition of existing law to issue its first towing license to an African-American garage owner. However, last month a Circuit Court upheld a ruling that the county had acted illegally because there was no proof of need for additional tow operators.
Caught in the middle is Jeff Jordan, 39, owner of Jordan Towing and Jordan Auto Service in the Woodlawn area.
"It's frustrating," said Jordan. "The court ruled that the county should never have given us a license, so they want to take it back."
"We didn't do anything wrong," he added. "Absolutely nothing wrong, and we stand to take a serious financial hit if we lose our license."
Was it a county mistake?
"Absolutely not," said Arnold Jablon, director of the Department of Permits and Development Management. "We did it on purpose. We think that minorities should be able to come into the business."
He said the license was issued to Jordan to break up the monopoly that has kept the police towing business in the hands of about 25 companies for 30 years, and to allow minority participation.
According to Jablon, Jordan's license was issued by Eugene Freeman, head of the permits and licensing division. "Gene thought it was the right thing to do, and I agreed with him, 100 percent," Jablon said.
Jablon has jurisdiction over the Department of Permits and Licensing.
Freeman said he would do the same thing again. "There is no doubt in my mind that we did the right thing," he said. "If we hadn't done it, I could see us ending up in federal court someday, facing a discrimination suit."
County code, Jablon said, permits the police to call only licensed towing companies to haul wrecked cars or other vehicles that need towing, such as those operated by drunken drivers.
He said this does not apply to vehicles on private property or an instance in which a car breaks down and its driver calls a tow truck.
Under the current system, Jablon said, the county is divided into 25 zones and towers are required to respond to a police call within five minutes.
Jablon said the department tried to broaden the code to allow Jordan to receive a piece of the lucrative business, "and we were shot down."
He said Jordan was warned early in the process that the other towing companies might protest the county's action.
According to court records, three companies (Hebbville Auto Repair Inc., Windsor Service Inc. and Varsity Auto Repair Inc.) which operate in the Woodlawn area, challenged the county's action.
Dennis McElgunn, vice president of Varsity and president of the Baltimore County Licensed Towers Association, said there was no need for additional towers.
"We have all built up our companies to handle any increased business," he said. "I've done this since 1956; I'm positive I can handle the business."
In January, the county's three-member administrative Board of Appeals ruled in favor of Jordan's competitors in a split decision, ruling that granting a license solely on the basis of being an African-American was unconstitutional.
Jordan took his case to Circuit Court.
Freeman testified that county code allows new companies to enter the business only if there is a need for additional towers. He determined, however, that need should not be interpreted in a manner that excludes African-American towers.
"In order to be fair and inclusive ... there was a need to provide a license to an African-American," Freeman, the head of permits and licensing, said in court documents.
What the judge said
On July 27, Circuit Judge Kathleen G. Cox ruled that Freeman's action was laudable, but did not "pass constitutional muster." She said it violated the constitution's equal protection clause.
She said the county code appears to have the effect of perpetuating a nondiverse monopoly on towing permits and it "may well warrant review and remedy."
Jablon said the protest by the other towers "has nothing to do with race. It's about dollars," he said. "Every towing job Jordan gets cuts into their revenue."
Baltimore County police estimate that the towing and storage of vehicles is a $2.5 million- to $3 million-a-year business. Because the state police use the same towers, the business is even larger, perhaps $5 million annually.
Jordan said his county license also allows him to do towing for the state police.
"It's good business," he said. "It's $110 for each tow and $17 a day for storage" of a towed car.
He said the police towing and storage accounts for about $8,000 a month in business, or roughly 40 percent of his total revenue.
"If I lose the Baltimore County license," he said, "I'll also lose the state police business."
In order to qualify for a tower's license, Jordan said, he invested $25,000 to set up an auto storage lot and another $60,000 for a new tow truck.
He estimates that his legal fight has already cost about $15,000 and he is considering spending another $5,000 to take his case to the state Court of Special Appeals.
"I'll make that decision in a day or two," he said.
As Jordan contemplates his legal fight, the county is looking at changing its code to open the business to other towers.
"We are looking at changing the law to provide a better system," Jablon said.
"There has got to be a better way to make objective decisions on towers. Maybe you rotate the business among towers. Maybe companies have a license for two years and then we bring in 25 new towers.
"To include Mr. Jordan and other towers," Jablon added, "we have got to come up with a better system."