SF to study impacts of removing fees for retrieving towed stolen cars 

click to enlarge With The City’s towing contract expiring next summer, the Board of Supervisors will take a look at the process in which someone who has their car stolen often feels ripped off twice. - RICH PEDRONCELLI/AP FILE PHOTO
  • Rich Pedroncelli/AP file photo
  • With The City’s towing contract expiring next summer, the Board of Supervisors will take a look at the process in which someone who has their car stolen often feels ripped off twice.

The joy of hearing one's stolen car has been recovered in San Francisco can often be dampened when told about the towing and storage fees. But The City may now do away with the process that has victims of car theft feeling fleeced and downright upset.

When a stolen vehicle is recovered by San Francisco police, the victim is given a 20-minute window to pick it up or it is towed. Once the vehicle is towed, the standard fees apply as for any vehicle tows, and if it isn't picked up storage fees accrue.

The longstanding practice is enshrined under a contract between the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and AutoReturn, the national tow company that has provided the service for The City since 2004.

But with the contract expiring in July 2015, Supervisor Scott Wiener, whose office routinely hears complaints about the fees from victims of auto theft, has seized upon the moment in a sort of pre-emptive strike to influence terms of a new auto towing agreement. On Tuesday, Wiener requested a Board of Supervisors hearing to examine the practice with the goal of eliminating it.

The hearing also comes as auto theft in San Francisco is on the rise. As of June, there were 3,126 reported auto thefts compared to 2,689 in the first six months of 2013, according to a Police Department document.

John Wicker, CEO of AutoReturn, said he would be happy to discuss the policies and fees associated with recovery of stolen vehicles and deflected criticism of the current fees onto The City.

"That question should go to the MTA and the Board of Supervisors," Wicker said. "We execute the policies of The City. I just do what I'm told."

Wicker said that the company averages 195 tows of recovered stolen vehicles monthly, approximately 0.9 percent of total vehicle tows across The City.

Wiener said that "owners of stolen vehicles should not be treated as if they have illegally parked their cars." The Board of Supervisors would ultimately have to approve of the new auto tow contract.

The existing contract term was approved in 2010 by the Board of Supervisors. Analysis at that time showed that between July 2005 and June 2010, the SFMTA made $29.6 million in revenue from the towing contract.

"We all get contacted by constituents about this," Wiener said. "Someone's car is stolen. It winds up being dumped somewhere in The City and it's ultimately towed, and then the person who has done absolutely nothing wrong ends up being responsible for hundreds, even thousands of dollars in towing fees and storage fees."

Sometimes the vehicles are auctioned off when the owner doesn't pay for them, he added.

"It's not an appropriate way for The City to be treating its residents or visitors to The City," Wiener said.

San Francisco residents have four hours during which they can recover their automobiles before AutoReturn storage fees kick in. Nonresidents do not receive a grace period. Wiener said he is open to ideas for a longer grace period before storage fees accrue or for reducing those fees.

The City used to have a waiver for residents to pick up their stolen car free of charge but it was repealed by the board in 2005.

"We got fewer complaints when we had a waiver process," Wicker noted.

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