The county's car-tel

May 21, 2007

It's time to give the hook to a practice that has stifled competition in Baltimore County. Been in a car accident in Baltimore County or otherwise had your car ordered towed by county police? Then you may have an inkling of the problem. For three decades, the county's 33 licensed tow-truck operators have had this business to themselves, and the result has been too many slow responses, poor performances and a system that has fostered little minority participation.

Legislation sponsored by Councilman Kenneth N. Oliver would hand the responsibility for dispatching and supervising tow-truck operators to a private contractor, and allow more such operators to be licensed by the county - not just those who have been licensed in the past. The move would take a time-consuming responsibility from police and enable greater competition.

Under the current law, when police need a tow, they must contact their home precinct (one of 10) and a desk officer must figure out which licensed tow operator covers that territory (the sprawling county is carved up into individual towing fiefdoms). Police Chief Terrence B. Sheridan says that has often left police on the scene of an accident waiting and waiting. But problems with tardiness or other shortcomings aren't well documented because the current dispatching method is so diffuse and individual police officers have more pressing concerns.

Consumers can't be too happy with the lack of competition, either. Most tow-truck operators open their private lots on weekdays only. Why wouldn't they? There's no danger of a competitor offering better service. It's also a profitable move for tow companies that charge a $25-a-day storage fee on top of the $150 tow. Police have found at least 300 incidents of overcharging over a recent two-year period.

Countywide, there is only one contractor who is black. That's because the law requires the county to prove a "need" before any new operators can be licensed. As a result, the pool has remained largely the same for 30 years. Such a lack of equal opportunity is not acceptable in a county where one out of four residents is African-American.

The proposal wouldn't put any of the current tow-truck operators out of business, but it would level the playing field. And it should even save taxpayers money - the contractor approved to dispatch and supervise towing companies likely would be paid by a portion of the towing fee. Getting a tow will never be fun, but it ought to at least be fair.

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