Two tow truck firms face suspension from Baltimore program

Doubling up of vehicles, unmanned lots, padding of bills to city are alleged

January 09, 2003|By Walter F. Roche Jr. | Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN STAFF

Two Baltimore tow truck firms, accused of violating terms of their agreements with the city, are facing possible suspensions that the owner of one company said would cost his business tens of thousands of dollars and force the layoff of employees.

The companies, Berman's Automotive and Frankford Towing, are two of about 10 firms that are issued medallions by the city Police Department to tow vehicles from crime and accident scenes. The firms are required to maintain garages at officially designated sites so that trucks can be dispatched quickly for public safety purposes. Motorists must pay towing fees of $80 to $89 plus storage charges to retrieve their vehicles.

Speaking before a Police Department hearing officer yesterday, investigators said Berman's and Frankford had failed to maintain the required manned sites and diverted phone calls from those sites to other locations. Investigators also alleged other violations, ranging from "padded bills" submitted by Frankford to putting two cars on a single tow truck.

A decision on the suspensions is expected next week.

Tim's Towing, a third firm that police said violated rules of the program and could have also faced a hearing, decided to drop out of the city program and has moved to Baltimore County, according to the owner.

"The rules haven't been updated in years," said Richard Berman of Berman's Automotive, adding that the proposed two-week suspension would cost $35,000 to $40,000 and force the layoff of 11 workers.

Calling the proposed penalty "totally unfair," Berman said modern technology rendered the dispatching system required by the regulations obsolete.

Police Lt. Paul B. Sheppard said no one was on duty at a Berman's site on Washington Boulevard on two days in November. A Frankford location on Quad Avenue also was unmanned with the gates padlocked, and similar findings were recorded from visits to four other Berman and Frankford locations, he said.

Tow company owners argue that the requirements are antiquated. "It is no longer necessary for a dispatcher to be sitting at each site," Berman said, adding that his firm's centralized computer system pinpoints the location of every truck.

"To us, to have a dispatcher sitting there is ludicrous. It just doesn't make sense," Berman said, adding that his firm responded to city calls within 12 minutes, far below the 20- minute limit.

William Bonnett and Paula Protani of Frankford said their firm had acted immediately to correct the violations. Protani noted police reports that rated Frankford's performance in the program as "excellent."

She acknowledged that the company had added fees to some of the bills recently submitted to the city, saying she was trying to "send a message" to city officials about the extensive time spent by tow truck drivers waiting to be processed at the city impound lot on Pulaski Highway.

The extra fees, which police officials said was for winching services that were never provided, were $80 to $120. City officials spotted the added charges and deducted them from the payments.

"It was another avenue for me to go. I needed to have the situation corrected," Protani said of the charges. "I wasn't doing anything to deceive anybody."

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