3 towing firms cited for violations

Hearings set tomorrow on `ghost' garage charges

January 07, 2003|By Walter F. Roche Jr. | Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore Police Department investigation has turned up new evidence of "ghost" garages in city towing operations and, as a result, three towing firms have been cited for violating the rules of the lucrative program.

Facing hearings tomorrow for violations of the city towing program regulations are Berman's Automotive, Frankford Towing and Tim's Towing. All three were cited last month for failing to meet minimum city requirements for maintaining official towing sites.

"Ghost" garages are garages that exist on paper, but do not meet the minimum requirements of the city program, which includes a manned telephone, parking spaces and an on-duty tow truck and operator.

The two-week suspensions were scheduled to take effect on a staggered basis beginning Dec. 22 but were put on hold when all three firms requested a hearing to dispute the charges.

Maj. Marcus Brown said that the citations were part of an effort to improve the administration of the program. The action against the three companies comes as the department is completing new regulations.

The three firms cited are among 10 designated by the city to tow vehicles from accident or crime scenes. Under the system, tow trucks are dispatched based on their proximity to the accident or crime scene.

Police officials say that maintaining the sites designated by the city is critical to ensure that tow trucks can respond rapidly to calls and remove disabled vehicles from traffic quickly.

Motorists must pay an $81 towing fee plus storage charges to retrieve their cars. Hundreds are towed to the city impound lot on Pulaski Highway every month.

An investigation by The Sun four years ago showed that two of the towing firms, Berman's and Frankford, had collected about $1.5 million in fees over a two-year period.

The Sun investigation found that there were no tow trucks on duty at many of the officially designated sites. One was an east-side liquor store, another was the parking lot for an auto parts store and a third was a used-car lot.

As a result of the recent police investigation of ghost garages, the three firms were cited for failing to meet minimum site requirements at various locations. Frankford was cited at three locations: 6700 Quad Ave., 4519 Harford Road and 2101 Fleet St.; Berman's, 934 Washington Blvd. and 2230 Reisterstown Road; Tim's Towing, 5500 Belair Road.

Officials of Frankford and Berman's did not respond to a request for comment on the violation notices. Tim Bonner, owner of Tim's Towing, said he planned to appear at tomorrow's hearing to contest the city citation. Bonner also criticized management of the towing operations by city officials.

He said mismanagement of the city impound lot on Pulaski Highway leads to cars being damaged and vandalized. Tow truck operators say they are often blamed for damage that occurs after they drop off cars at the city facility.

The proposed new rules would require that all cars towed under the city program be photographed before they are towed and again after they arrive at the impound lot.

Brown said the biggest change under the new rules would be to set tighter standards for towing garage sites.

Police officials acknowledge there have been problems in the past in the program with the ghost garages.

"We want to make sure that it is an actual legitimate site and not ... a liquor store or something else," Brown said. ""We're putting out the word that there's a new sheriff in town."

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