"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.
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.