Parking Tips: The History & Drama Of Car Towing Fees


It's no secret that parking in the city is a bitch. So we've enlisted local parking guru and author of Finding the Sweet Spot, David LaBua, to dish out weekly tips on navigating the ins and outs of city parking.

Says David: A couple of weeks ago, my post about your car disappearing generated a lot of email expressing confusion and varied experiences and beliefs about retrieving a stolen and towed vehicle. Many people remember when towing and storage fees were waived if your car was stolen, then recovered. Many people, including some at the SFMTA, the Police Station, and some at AutoReturn were unclear about whether or not any fees were waived. And many people wanted to know when the rules changed. So, I dug a little deeper and found some documents, which will hopefully answer many questions, and probably create a few more.

Once upon a time, in the good old days when city governments didn’t routinely run in the red, and when we believed the statements that, “Bridge tolls would be collected at the toll booth only until the building of the bridge was paid for,” there was a compassionate San Francisco ordinance. This ordinance waived the towing and storage fees if your vehicle was stolen, and then towed. It truly was an ordinance of compassion, because the last thing anyone needs after the trauma of having their vehicle stolen, was to have to pay several hundred dollars before you could claim it.

Then one day, the compassion stopped. The ordinance was repealed and replaced, a new towing company took over, and a new ordinance was passed, that out of context, looked like a very kind ordinance for the people. But it wasn’t. It was an ordinance made largely of hydrogenated palm oil and high fructose corn syrup with compassion color and flavoring added. Here is a chronological list of the changes:

Municipal code states that all towing and storage fees are waived for SF residents if one's car is stolen, recovered, then towed.

July 15, 2003: Ordinance Number 190-03 passed by the Board of Supervisors (11-1) approving an administrative fee of $194 for police costs for towing of vehicles.

March 22, 2004: AutoReturn takes over SF’s towing contract.

July 29, 2005: City Ordinance 191-05 was passed by the Mayor and the Board of Supervisors (9-2). This ordinance repealed the old Municipal Code, which   provided a waiver of all vehicle storage fees for stolen vehicles of SF residents. It then provided for a waiver of the recently approved administrative fees.

Now, I’m not a Philadelphia lawyer, nor did I stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night, but I think this is the correct breakdown of what happened:

In a nutshell: 1) All towing and storage fees used to be waived if your car was stolen. 2) Then, a $194 administrative fee was added for towed vehicles. 3) AutoReturn took over the towing contract. 4) An ordinance was passed repealing the exemption of all towing and storage fees, but added an exemption of the new administrative fees, which had been recently added.

In a smaller nutshell: You used to have to pay $0 if your car was stolen and then towed. Now you have to pay a minimum of $199.25

Inside the center of a Tootsie Pop:
$199.25 x 5,500 stolen cars towed per year = $1.1 million for AutoReturn

$186.50 SF Admin Fee x 70,000 towed vehicles per year = $13.5 million

To see excerpts from the above legislation, click here.

For more parking facts, strategies, tips and tricks click here

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