Monday, 05 December 2011 21:22

Houston City Towing Ordinance Changes---Not All Favorable to Body Shops

If a car gets towed in Houston without the owner's consent, it stays in Houston, the City Council decided Nov. 30. Houston City council approved changes to the city's ordinance covering towing companies and auto shops that is geared toward "trying to make sure that an unhealthy relationship between the tow truck drivers and collision repair shops is monitored more closely," Mayor Annise Parker said, according tho the Houston Chronicle. "There are lots of reports that after accidents, tow trucks may be being paid bounties to take cars to particular collision repair shops."

The city ordinance mainly requires better record-keeping at body shops, cap repair work without consent at $100 and mandate a written estimate of any special fees. Industry representatives, including the Houston Auto Body Association (HABA), applaud some of the proposed mandates but are quick to say others may end up bogging down reputable businesses, slowing their ability to serve customers.

James Brown, of the Houston Auto Body Association (HABA), testified before the Mayor and City Council on behalf of HABA on November 29, voicing the HABA's concerns with the current language in the ordinance. Brown was pulled into a private meeting with the Mayor's Assistant, the City Attorney, and members of HPD Auto Dealers Division (Capt Baimbridge & Sgt Provost) following his testimony. The meeting lasted around an hour and a half and the group informed Brown that none of the latest revisions HABA requested would be honored for one reason or another.

"We do think there’s a lot of good things in there, said James Brown, the president of the HABA, to KHOU 11 News Houston. "But there are a lot of things that still need some work. There are a lot of things in there that give the insurance companies the same authority as the consumer—the owner of the vehicle—which we would like to see taken out."

 

"HABA has been working with HPD Auto Dealers Division for over a year and that has resulted in a lot of positive changes," said James Brown, President of the Houston Autobody Association, "HABA has also worked closely with ASA on the revisions and we have made a lot of progress but still have a ways to go."

Councilwoman Sue Lovell, who spent a year meeting with auto repair industry representatives to craft the changes, said that once a car arrives, some unscrupulous collision repair shops charge more than $1,000 just to generate an estimate. She brandished a binder full of complaints to back her assertion that while most merchants are honest, there have been enough cases of abuse to warrant the city's intervention. "It's really about consumer protection," she said.

Jeanette Rash, owner of Fast Tow and leader of a consortium of wrecker companies that clears freeway breakdowns for the city, supported the revisions in part because it will allow storage yards to increase daily rates for the first time in a decade, from $15 to $20.

Council members delayed action on other revisions that would have specifically regulated estimates and repairs to prevent the scenario Lovell outlined. Those changes would require mechanics and body shops to get written authorization for all work or a signed waiver allowing for a verbal approval from the customer. The changes would require shop owners to keep such records for two years.

'Overregulation'

Councilman Oliver Pennington had two problems with the revisions.

"I think it's a classic case of overregulation," he said. The record-keeping requirements are too onerous for the shops, he said. He also complained that the rule changes fail to make a distinction between collision repair shops, which have generated most of the complaints of alleged swindles, and mechanics, which have not been the subject of widespread complaints. Pennington said mechanics should be able to get a verbal OK from customers for prices that exceed the estimate instead of having to do more paperwork that creates an inconvenience and cost.

Council members Jolanda Jones and C.O. Bradford said the Parker administration got the changes to them too late for proper consideration. The final version of the changes did not arrive at council offices until Monday night, meaning many council members did not see them until moments before Wednesday's meeting.

Targeting 'bad guys'

The late changes also caused automotive repair industry representatives to hesitantly endorse a final version they acknowledged they were not yet familiar with based on how it had been described to them.

"We want to get rid of the bad guys in the body shop business," said Kathryn van der Pol, past president of the Automotive Service Association of Houston and co-owner of Adolf Hoepfl & Son Garage, which has been in business since 1946.

On the other hand, she said, "We don't want something that burdens small business with overregulation," and she worries that the proposed revisions will criminalize an honest mistake, such as not collecting a signature authorization.

The Houston City Council says the new auto repair industry regulations for the city came about because of complaints that some body shops are deceiving consumers.

The changes are aimed at increasing transparency within the industry, said Lt. Wendy Bainbridge with the Houston Police Department, according to KHOU 11 News Houston. The ordinance comes after one Houston City Council member said she received complaints about body work done without customers’ consent. "They’d charge (customers) for the estimate. Sometimes up to $1,000. And if you wanted to get your car out, you had to pay the $1,000. We thought that wasn’t fair," Council Member Sue Lovell said to KHOU 11 News Houston.

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