Friday, October 24, 2014


Cover Story

Towed

10/2/2013

Walking back to your car to find it’s not where you left it leaves you with an eerie feeling.

“Did someone steal my car?”… “Why would anyone want to steal my car? It’s a 1993 Ford Escort that doesn’t even have reverse!”

“Is this a dream?”

“Am I stoned?”

“Dude, where’s my car?”

DM Art Center

You stare at the empty parking spot, or at the car that succeeded yours in the space. You look to the right, to the left, hand above your brow as if the sun is somehow blinding you from seeing what’s not there. You pace up and down and in a circle, puzzled. Eventually the mental process brings you to the conclusion that your car has been towed.

Whether it’s because you had too many unpaid parking tickets, your tags were expired, you exceeded your allotted time at the meter, you didn’t read the sign reserving the space for someone more eligible or because you got too creative when finding your phenomenal, prime-real estate parking spot, it’s no one’s fault but your own.

But you’re too pissed off to see it that way — to see reason. It’s the damn city’s fault, right? Blame the rigid meter maid or the grizzly tow-truck driver. The blame belongs to someone holding a clip board, for certain. Hell, blame the government. It’s as good a target as any, if not better — anything to keep from admitting to yourself that you made a mistake that is now going to cost you.

Des Moines traffic facilities administrator Mike Berry shows one of the newest parking meter models, the SmartMeter, which are replacing the older versions.

Des Moines traffic facilities administrator Mike Berry shows one of the newest parking meter models, the SmartMeter, which are replacing the older versions.

Regardless of whom you choose to pass the buck to, you will follow the protocol set in place in order to retrieve your property. You have to. You will follow an invisible red tape line down to the police station, up the old stone steps and to the counter where regular people work behind protective glass and, through a tiny round speaker vent, an emotionless employee will ask: “Can I help you?”

Here is where people encounter a crossroad. Two choices are laid before you. One: Take the woman’s question as one of personal martyrdom, an offer to be your verbal punching bag so you may let lose your rage over how you’ve been unjustly burdened and how you’d like to shave her feathered 1988 hair-style down to a fine fuzz in a haze of cussing and flailing. This happens almost every day at the Des Moines Police Department. This is why they have the protective glass.

Or, you can unclench your jaw and fists, remember to remain calm, notice how the woman’s hairstyle is just like your dear, jovial Aunt Maggie’s and summons the manners you were taught as a child… Oh, and get out your wallet. You don’t have to like it — in fact, who in his right mind would? You don’t have to smile. You don’t have to make small talk. But in situations like this, it’s prudent to remember who has the power. Though you’re likely still too cross to realize it, that person is not you. So it’s wise to bite your tongue, fill out the annoying paper work and pay your $20 “administrative service fee” to the lady behind the counter wearing the Faded Glory T-shirt with the horses on it.

“The $20 administrative fee is to cover administrative costs that we have here at the office,” says a woman at the Des Moines Police Department’s Impound and Property Management Division. Could she be vaguer?

But on any given day of the week, a short visit to the PD will enlighten you as to what the $20 administrative fee really is: It’s a fee the city charges for having to put up with your shit, your bad attitude, your unreasonable disgruntlement when you come demanding back your property.

CVA_03PAGE 18“The best way I have found to handle the disgruntled public is to just be professional and not take any comments personally,” said Charles Russell with Impound and Property. “Most people are not having a good day anytime they are in contact with the PD anyway. I just try to assure them that I am going to help them get through the process as quickly and efficiently as possible.

“By the time I have issued a release to someone, they are usually decent, even though they don’t like the situation.”

At this point, step one of the process is complete. Now the grumpy citizen is someone else’s problem — someone at G and S Towing.

“We hear a lot of foul language and get some bad attitudes,” admitted G and S manager Chris Kelsey. “We’ve literally had people have kind of a nervous breakdown in here.” Hence the multitude of signage upon entering the impound office:

“No firearms allowed on premises.”

“No recording devices or cameras allowed on premises.”

“Treat us the way you want to be treated. This is a business. We treat all of our customers/patrons with respect and expect the same courtesy.”

And, of course, “We have the right to refuse service to anyone!!” (Note the exclamation points.)

If none of the others gets through to your hot head, that last one better. If the tow company personnel decided to refuse service to you, then that means you don’t get your car back. Period. Remember, again, who has the power? Not you. Frustrating and annoying as that may be, this is the point where you should come to admit that you caused this by breaking the law in the first place.

“A lot of times people were caught driving without a license and have a buddy there with a license, but the cops go ahead and tow the car instead of letting the buddy drive,” Kelsey explained. “But that’s not our fault.

“One time we had a couple come in here and then went outside to the parking lot where the guy actually hit his girlfriend, and we had to call the cops for her.”

But most of the cop-calling comes from the patrons, Kelsey admitted.

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“Usually the cop comes out, figures out the situation and sides with us, because we did everything we were supposed to do,” he said.

“Some people come in and find out their car has just been sold,” said G and S accounting clerk, Jeannette Karlzen. “Des Moines sends out a notice, usually the next day after it’s been towed, notifying the owners. The city gives them 10 days from when the letter is postmarked to come pick it up. If they don’t…”

The vehicle becomes eligible for auction, she said, which can trigger a hostile reaction from the car’s now former owner.

“We only had to forcibly push someone out the door one time,” added Karlzen, whose desk sits in front of a wall covered in about 200 hanging yellow envelopes, each representing a car in the impound lot. A screen mounted on the wall shows where every tow truck is located on a map via GPS technology. “That way we can keep track of them,” said Karlzen. “We each have it on our computers, as well.”

If G and S co-owner Glen Mikel had a computer on his desk, you wouldn’t know it. In an adjacent office, it’s buried beneath a mountain of chaos he calls his organization system.

“One time someone cleaned my desk. I couldn’t find anything. I had to start all over,” he laughed. He told a story about an article The Des Moines Register had published in which he was described as “a gruff tow truck driver.” But, in this business, he’s surely been called worse.

“You have to stand your ground and know what’s right,” Mikel advised. “It’s not about who is right; it’s about what is right.”

What’s right is simple. If someone provides a service, he should be paid for the service he provided. G and S has a contract with the City of Des Moines to supply the city with all its towing needs. They don’t keep a spreadsheet or anything like that, but Kelsey guesses the contract with the city amounts to about 20-30 percent of G and S Towing’s business.

“Most of what we do is roadside, broken down cars,” Kelsey said. “But we get anywhere from five to 10 cars a day that are from parking violations, accidents and arrests.”

He said the city pays G and S nothing for the service, so the revenue has to come from the patrons, which amounts to a $20 impound fee plus $3 per day storage charges — a significantly lower rate than the company’s standard $50 rate and $10 daily storage fee for private tows. With the city’s $20 administrative fee, though, it amounts to only a $7 total savings.

As inconvenient as having your car impounded may be, it’s far more financially draining in other cities compared to Des Moines. In Ames the city charges a $30 base fee; in Newton, it’s $45; Cedar Rapids charges $60; and Council Bluffs is $78 — all with storage fees between $5 and $10 a day.

“The City Council thinks when you get your car impounded it shouldn’t cost people too much,” Kelsey explained. “And usually the meter maids downtown will give them every chance in the world to pay for it.”

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But that only works if you return to your car while it’s still in the process of being ticketed and/or towed. For those unfortunate enough to be able to relate with Ashton Kutcher’s blazed pothead character in the movie “Dude, Where’s My Car?” it’s all a matter of keeping your cool and following protocol.

“Parking is an enterprise system similar to a non-profit,” said Des Moines traffic facilities administrator Michael Berry. “It’s like Des Moines Water Works or the airport. It operates off the dollars it generates, used to pay employees, maintenance, etc.”

And now the City is making parking that much easier in hopes to prevent people from getting ticketed and towed by implementing new SmartMeters downtown.

The City of Des Moines installed the SmartCard parking meters a few years ago, but this past summer, 265 new silver-topped SmartMeters were added, which take coins, SmartCards and credit/debit cards. Berry promises the new technology is for both the users’ and the city’s convenience as well as an inevitable act of keeping up with modern times.                 

“That’s what we’re really after,” he said. “We wouldn’t implement the SmartCards if we weren’t interested in helping people. Our intention is only for people to pay for what they use. Parking is not a way of generating revenue. It’s a balancing act between giving people a place to park and better securing retail businesses.”

The new rigs were installed in what the Traffic and Transportation Division has decided are “high-use activity areas” of the city, including:

Locust Street from 10th to 15th;

East Locust Street from Fourth to Sixth;

East Grand Avenue from Second to Sixth; and

Robert D. Ray Drive.

If you use your SmartCard or bank card, the meter requires a $1 minimum, but with a SmartCard, the unused portion of that dollar is credited back to the card.

“Money’s kind of going away,” Berry explained. “You buy a pack of gum, you use a credit card. A lot of people don’t have change. So this is more convenient.”

The new meters are “smart,” because Berry is able to monitor and record the exchange on each one from his office at City Hall. If someone calls the number on the meter for assistance, he can tell how much money was deposited and compare that to how much time the meter allotted to the user. So you can prove it if you’re being ripped off, and Berry can assign a maintenance worker to fix problem meters.

“You still need to call that number when you get a ticket due to a broken meter. You need to make that connection, but I can look at a log and see how long a person started a meter and when the meter expired,” Berry said. “You’ll still have to follow the normal appeal procedures.” CV