Bloomington city council tees up new local law to regulate non-consensual vehicle towing

If you leave your car in a private lot where you’re not allowed to park, you risk getting your vehicle towed at your own expense. That’s not really news—for Bloomington or any other place.

What is new for Bloomington is a proposed ordinance to regulate companies that provide towing service to parking lot owners. Such companies would have to pay the city $350 a year for a “non-consensual tow business license” and face, on first offense, a $2,500 fine for failure to obtain a license.

The $350 license fee is the same as what a one-year license cost for mobile food vendors in Bloomington, according to the staff memo in the city council’s information packet.

The ordinance will get a first reading next Wednesday night, which means no debate and no final action will be taken on it at that meeting. At most, the council could refer the proposed ordinance for consideration by its committee of the whole on the following Wednesday or some other time in the future.

Under the ordinance, fees charged to vehicle owners would be capped at $125 for the towing, $25 for any special equipment needed (like a dolly), and $25 per day for storage, after the day the vehicle arrives at the facility.

The proposed new law would require that a vehicle towed from inside the city limits of Bloomington be stored inside Monroe County. And the vehicle owner would have to be allowed to retrieve their vehicle within 60 minutes of its arrival at the storage facility.

Under the proposed ordinance, a tow company would have to release a vehicle to its owner as soon as proof of ownership is provided and all fees are paid—or 20 percent of fees with a signed payment agreement for the balance.

Under the 20-percent provision, someone who has their car towed and wants to get it back the same day, could pay $25 and sign a payment agreement for the balance of $100.

At a city council work session on Friday afternoon, the sponsor of the ordinance, Jim Sims, said the ordinance is meant to prevent people’s cars being towed and made subject to unreasonable fees. This last Sunday, Sims said, a member of his congregation had their car towed and had to pay $230 to get it back the same day.

Sims said a lot of people can’t afford that kind of bill, especially if they need the vehicle to get to their job. The idea is to ensure that tow companies get a fair value for their work, while protecting people from exorbitant fees, Sims said.

The possibility of a 20-percent payment, with a signed promise to pay the balance, is a social equity component of the proposed law, Sims said.

Sims said he was carrying the ordinance forward on behalf of former councilmembers Andy Ruff and Dorothy Granger, whose service ended at the end of last year.

At a late-September work session, discussion about the council’s work load indicated that other matters would push the towing ordinance to this year. Those other matters included consideration of the unified development ordinance and the planning for an expansion of the convention center.

At Friday’s city council work session, city attorney Mike Rouker said the towing fee cap of $125 was the same as what towing companies are paid when the city initiates a tow. After a 2018 update, the fee is consistent with the fees charged by Ellettsville, Indiana University, Indiana State Police, and the Monroe County’s sheriff’s department, Rouker said.

According to the memo by the council’s attorney/administrator, Bloomington’s proposed ordinance is meant to “add additional, reasonable regulations consistent with the purpose and provisions of applicable state law.”