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Keep rein on city towing vendor


Returning to a parked car and realizing it has been towed ranks up there among the most dispiriting experiences in driving. It usually means a disruption in the daily schedule, calling a friend to help with transportation — and a fat bill besides, payable in cash only.

And now it appears those bills could have been inflated, if not for an inquiry by Star-Advertiser writer Rob Perez that nudged unaware city officials into action to stop the practice.

The irony, and the reason the city must ramp up its initially lax oversight: The company won the lucrative islandwide contract on the basis of more favorable rates to those paying the penalty for the tow.

The contractor, Leeward Auto Wreckers, took over police-initiated tows on Nov. 1, and within a matter of weeks the irregularities have come to light.

After at first defending its interpretation of the contact documents as being a legitimate means of making the deal more viable financially, company executives acknowledged the unauthorized markups after being called into a meeting with the city.

Leeward Auto was charging a $65 hookup fee, compared to the $60 offered in its pact with the city, as well as $7.50 per towed mile, rather than the agreed $7 rate.

Those overcharges came to light in a Star-Advertiser review of about 100 accident-tow invoices.

The company clearly needed an edge to compete in the city's recent overhaul of its towing contract. Oahu had been sectioned previously into 13 zones, with various companies competing for each exclusive contract. Leeward Auto had no experience handling the Honolulu Police Department-ordered tows.

Additionally, the contract marked a complete departure from the city's prior, competitive practice. City officials had the idea — and it seemed rational enough — that a unified contract would address the complaints lodged by motorists about inconsistent service among the handful of vendors providing the towing service.

The city's weak response to the Leeward Auto revelation was that it had not received any complaints of alleged overbilling and so had not audited the contractor.

But given the newness of the contract scope and the vendor, officials should have monitored the launch keenly from Day 1, instead of relying on public informants: What motorist could be expected to be aware of the correct rates?

Further, the entire category of service should have been high on the city's radar. Past problems had provided ample reason for reform, including the disclosure by the Star-Advertiser two years ago that the vendor handling Oahu's busiest zone, Stoneridge Recoveries, was under criminal investigation by the state's insurance fraud unit. Stoneridge ultimately lost the contract, but the criminal investigation continued, with a decision on pursuing charges now pending.

Honolulu should have learned from that experience and now must ride herd on Leeward Auto.

Officials said they will compel a complete accounting of all charges for police-initiated tows, a plan to refund any overcharges and a plan to ensure compliance with contract terms.

That appears to be the right track to follow. No future taint should be tolerated, and any overcharging beyond the agreed fees would be a breach of the deal.

Towing is one of the necessary duties of municipal management, to enforce parking restrictions that enable traffic to flow. Most taxpayers realize that, but they have a right to demand fair treatment.

The city's part of the bargain is to see that they get it.

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LittleEarl_01 wrote:
Another perfect example of "business as usual" by city administrators.
on December 19,2012 | 04:47AM
bender wrote:
Yep, the people overseeing tow contracts were able to shrink it from 13 contracts to 1 and they still can't get it right. They shrank the workload by 90% but I bet they're still 100% manned. And I bet they figured their work was done until it was time to renew the contract.
on December 19,2012 | 05:11AM
kiragirl wrote:
Incompetency is rampant in our county as proof they cannot even oversee a tow company's contract yet promises that the rail project will be built on-time and within budget.
on December 19,2012 | 07:18AM
localguy wrote:
City workers responsible for reviewing the towing contractor, have a contract saying 10 minutes work, 50 minutes break per hour, do not have computer access, paper files only, rotary dial phone, the best our city can give them. What did you expect?
on December 19,2012 | 09:11AM
allie wrote:
These towing stories, I am told, go back decades. When will the corruption stop?
on December 19,2012 | 09:13AM
sjean wrote:
In placing blame solely on the city, you exonerate the actual criminal, Leeward Auto.
on December 19,2012 | 02:40PM
Larry01 wrote:
Exactly. People love to complain about the government, but you notice it's the private sector that is most often committing the crimes.
on December 20,2012 | 07:12AM
Sid_Hartha wrote:
My son's pickup was towed the other night...from his labelled parking space at his apt. bldg. Not Leeward though. Abe's returned the vehicle that same night and the manager called my son to apologize. Oh, and the driver was fired. There's some integrity still yet on the island.
on December 19,2012 | 05:52AM
soundofreason wrote:
on December 19,2012 | 06:30AM
control wrote:
An even bigger rip off and con game is the privatized state and city parking lots that require an attendent. A substantial amount of cash is readily skimmed and never gets put into the register. The attendent gets out of the booth and pushes an exterior button to raise the rail. The payment is pocketed after the vehicle leaves.
on December 19,2012 | 07:08AM
localguy wrote:
control - You just gave away the secret way our elected bureaucrats get free parking. Neil will be very upset.
on December 19,2012 | 09:09AM
allie wrote:
on December 19,2012 | 09:13AM
frontman wrote:
Some people in office are getting payoffs or this type of thing could not be happening.
on December 19,2012 | 08:48AM
allie wrote:
lot of dark corners in Honolulu
on December 19,2012 | 09:14AM
localguy wrote:
Once again our clueless bureaucrats do what they do best, fail to protect the citizens who elected them. Ideally a copy of the charges stated in the contract should be given to anyone who had their car towed. Charges must match clearly match the contract. There should be a fine schedule in place against Leeward Auto Wreckers of a minimum 100 times any willful overages they charge. Nothing gets a contractor's attention faster than having to pay fines out of their profits. Hit them where it hurts, their wallet. Require monthly reviews of all tows and if there is no progress in cleaning up their act, fire them. No wonder the Nei has a world wide reputation as the living example of "South Park" We are so dysfunctional, the world is laughing at us every day. This is what we do.
on December 19,2012 | 09:01AM
sjean wrote:
Better yet, don't park in a tow-away zone.
on December 19,2012 | 02:42PM
localguy wrote:
sjean - No, better yet, require the contractor to be honest. What a concept in the Nei, never been done before.
on December 19,2012 | 07:16PM
islandsun wrote:
Since when has the city been able to do anything right?
on December 19,2012 | 11:18AM
alohacharlie wrote:
Ever since I first started reading about the proposed new towing contract, then the fact about how the bidding went, and all about this contractor who got the bid, I feared I smelled a rat. Boy, was I ever correct with that smell and it has not gone away. And I will bet that if anyone sues Leeward, the judge will find in favor of the company or just throw out the suit. I do so hope that these kind of things only happen here in Hawaii and not to those poor mainlanders.
on December 19,2012 | 02:44PM
localguy wrote:
Sad to so many businesses in the Nei are corrupt. Their owners, products of our failing school system, never learned the meaning of words like "Integrity, honesty, fairness." Taking after many of our elected bureaucrats who also willfully try to rip off taxpayers, always "Them" never the people. Yep, we are the living South Park of the Pacific.
on December 19,2012 | 02:45PM
localguy wrote:
Sad to so many businesses in the Nei are corrupt. Their owners, products of our failing school system, never learned the meaning of words like "Integrity, honesty, fairness." Taking after many of our elected bureaucrats who also willfully try to take from taxpayers, always "Them" never the people. Yep, we are the living South Park of the Pacific.
on December 19,2012 | 02:45PM
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