The owners of several towing companies came together during February’s regularly scheduled meeting of the Town of Aldermen to lodge a formal complaint with both Town and County officials regarding the wrecker service rotation used to respond to traffic accidents throughout Franklin.
“Tonight we would like to bring to your attention the ongoing situation regarding how towing companies are dispatched when there is an accident inside the city limits of Franklin,” said Lloyd Cox, Owner of Ambassador Auto in Franklin. Cox was one of two men who addressed the Town Board on behalf of the majority of towing companies operating in Franklin.
According to Cox, over the past two years the majority of towing companies in the county have experienced a substantial decrease in the amount of towing calls received from 911 dispatch within the town. Cox noted that while his business, as well as the others, have experiences a drastic decrease, Nathan’s Paint and Body has seen a significant increase in the number of calls they have received.
From December 4, 2010 through February 1, 2012, Nathan’s Paint and Body answered 76 calls from dispatch to report to an accident to tow away a vehicle. During the same time period, the other six towing companies in Franklin averaged 35 calls between them, a little more than half of the calls received by their competitor. “These numbers only reflect the towing calls that were issued through dispatch,” noted Cox. “It does not include calls made directly to Nathan’s by cell phone or verbal contact on the scene.”
Walter Hunter, owner of Franklin Body Shop for 42 years, also spoke to aldermen on behalf of the towing companies and stated that his discontent does not fall on Nathan’s Paint and Body as a personal conflict, but because professionally, he finds his shop losing business and feels it should be prevented.
Generally, towing services are called to accidents through 911 dispatch on a rotation basis. The procedure is in place to ensure that each wrecker on the rotation is allowed equal opportunity to offer their services to accident victims. Customarily, the only time the rotation schedule is ignored is in the event that the owner of the vehicle being towed requests a specific towing company due to preference or if officers on the scene request a specific towing company because of specific circumstances of the accident. “Each owner, of course, has regular customers who request a particular service,” said Hunter. “Those who have no preference are supposed to be referred to the next company in rotation.”
The group spoke to the Board and attributed possible explanations surrounding the difference in dispatched call distribution to Nathan Hursey’s – owner of Nathan’s Paint and Body – association as a volunteer firefighter. “As a firefighter, he is automatically placed in a position of trust in the customer eyes,” said Cox. “When he answers calls as a firefighter already in his tow truck, it is easier for a police officer to appoint his towing company to tow away the disabled car. The scene is cleared quicker and the officer can return to their regular duties, quicker.”
According to both Cox and Hunter, as a volunteer firefighter, Hursey would respond to accidents already in his tow truck, or in a service vehicle advertising his company, which gives his company immediate exposure to the person needing assistance. The group claimed that by acting as a volunteer firefighter and a tow truck driver, Hursey has a conflict of interest which prevents the wrecker rotation from being fairly executed.
“It is my opinion that Nathan’s association with the Franklin Fire Department as a volunteer has led him to be able to solicit business,” said Hunter. “When an accident occurs, and a volunteer fireman appears, who also owns a towing service, it is only natural for people involved in the accident to be easily persuaded to use Nathan's towing service rather than call for the next rotation.”
The group’s spokesperson also alleged that the tow company owners feel that Hursey’s association as a firefighter has allowed him to build relationships with county and town officials which has resulted in him receiving preferential treatment. “Allowing a towing company owner, relative or employee to work an accident scene also allows that one towing company to create friendships that may steer business in their direction,” stated Cox. “The towing companies behind me can relay accounts where their customers were denied the request for their tow trucks and were told that their vehicle was being towed by Nathan’s Paint and Body.”
Cox presented members of the Board with a notarized statement from an Ambassador Auto customer stating they requested Ambassador Auto but were denied and were informed that the vehicle was recovered and towed by Hursey’s company.
Cox noted that after being in business for 10 years, he averaged two “owner requests” at the scene of an accident, a year, whereas Hursey’s company received 11 during the time period referenced earlier. “It just does not make sense that after I have been in business as long as I have, and these guys behind me doing the same, that Nathan’s “owner requests” are more than all of ours combined,” said Cox.
Cox stated that the costs associated with a tow is far greater than just the $150 towing fee. “These tow calls represent the opportunity to repair the damaged vehicles,” said Cox. “Typically, insurance companies award the repair to the shop where the vehicle is towed rather than increase the cost of repair by paying an additional towing charge to have the vehicle moved to another shop.”
The tow calls also represent hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs that are essential for shop owners in order to continue doing business in Franklin, stated Cox.
“The financial ramifications of these actions affect my business more than meaning I lose the charge for towing,” said Hunter. “My company has the potential to make money from the storage of the vehicle as well as making the repairs. The eight people I employ and their families depend on my company getting its fair share.”
According to Hunter, he reviewed CAD reports and dispatch records but could not find any obvious explanation for the skewed distribution. “There isn’t any explanation without considering that there are other sources involved,” said Hunter. “If there was a problem with any towing service that results in a reluctance to use that company, those concerns need to be addressed with the individual company. Perceived problems should not be used as an excuse to give any company an unfair advantage.”
According to the towing companies, the unfair distribution of dispatch calls became most apparent near the end of 2009, at which point they notified town and county authorities. According to Sheriff Robbie Holland, a few towing services brought the problem to his attention in 2009, at which point Holland addressed the issue with his staff and also informed the towing services of the procedure maintained by his officers.
In a letter sent to Larry Davis and Mark Stanfield in January 2010, Holland informed the business owners that although he is not required to follow a state policy regarding the wrecker rotation, he voluntarily has implemented the North Carolina Highway Patrol’s policy and would reiterate the proper procedure to his staff. “I am an independent, Constitutional Officer elected by the citizens of Macon County and my Office is not required to follow the policy established by the Highway Patrol,” wrote Sheriff Holland. “Granted, we have used and will continue to use the rotation service when it is appropriate under the circumstances; however, I reserve the right to deviate from the rotation at any time to expedite Sheriff’s Office business.”
Sheriff Holland’s letter also explained that the Highway Patrol policy also calls for discretionary deviations from the wrecker rotation in certain circumstances.
The letter also informed towing companies of the proper procedure they needed to follow to make the Sheriff’s Office aware of any future concerns. “I have addressed the issues of concern that you perviously brought to my attention that I had control over,” wrote Sheriff Holland. “In the future, if either of you feel that one of my officers has acted inappropriately you should file a written complaint stating specific names, facts and allegations of wrongdoing.”
The letter directed any future complaints be submitted in writing through the Sheriff’s Office website, and informed both men that verbal complaints or written complaints involving hearsay, rumors or nonspecific allegations would not be accepted.
“If there was a continuing problem, I should have been informed immediately,” said Holland. “If I have a problem in the city, I am going to go to that department head and express my concerns before going to the Aldermen. I would expect the same thing in return, but wasn’t given that opportunity in this case. I can not fix it, if I am not aware of an issue, and as soon as I am properly informed of any issue, I will immediately address it.”
Although the towing businesses were addressing the Aldermen concerning the Town’s involvement in the unfair distribution of dispatch calls, Macon County’s Sheriff was in attendance to answer any questions or concerns for the County.
Sheriff Holland addressed the Town Board during Monday night’s meeting and informed them that to date, only one complaint had been properly filed with the Sheriff’s Office since he sent the letter in 2010, and that complaint was immediately handled.
Alderman Bob Scott spoke to say that he felt as if the towing services were being unfair and throwing out serious accusations against the Town. “I think the Town is being singled out,” said Scott. “And I don’t like feeling like I am being attacked.”
Cox informed Scott that the same group which was speaking to the Aldermen have also requested to be put on the agenda for the February meeting of the County Commissioners to inform them of the situation as well.
“Although I have several responsibilities and priorities that I am responsible for as Sheriff, I am making it my personal responsibility to make sure that the situation with the wrecker rotation gets immediate attention,” said Holland. “As Sheriff, I am ultimately the only one responsible for the actions of my staff and if there continues to be a problem, I will personally see to it that any officer involved will be appropriately reprimanded.”
According to the Sheriff, he held a meeting on Monday with his command staff and anyone with the Sheriff’s Office who has supervision obligations, to inform them that apparently despite Holland’s past efforts and although no formal complaints have been received, there may still be an issue with unnecessary deviation from the wrecker rotation. He also announced that effective immediately all wrecker requests must completely fill out the appropriate forms and that each request must not only be approved by the officer responding to the accident, but that a supervisor on duty must also sign off on each form.
“I am aware that there is an issue with how this is being handled in my department,” said Sheriff Holland. “We will work to correct our mistakes. I have informed my officers of the proper protocol and I have no doubt that they will follow the wrecker rotation policy currently maintained by the North Carolina Highway Patrol.”
The Sheriff’s Office maintains the Highway Patrol’s policy in regards to the wrecker rotation. Cox asked the Aldermen to consider adopting the Highway Patrol’s entire policy, which includes preventing towing services from being places on the rotation if they have financial interests or impartial use of services, which business owners claim would prevent Hursey from acting as both a volunteer firefighter and a towing service.
The North Carolina Highway Patrol’s Directive J.4 number XI states: “No member of the Patrol or any of its civilian employees shall hold any financial interest or any form of ownership interest in any wrecker service. No member may be employed by a wrecker service, nor shall any member be assigned to a county where any relative of the member has a financial interest in or is employed by a wrecker service.”
Cox asked the Board to consider adopting the Highway Patrol's directive, which would mean Hursey would no longer be allowed to be on the wrecker rotation because as a civilian employee he would have a financial interest in responding to dispatch calls.
The Town Board agreed to allow the Town’s attorney, John Henning Jr. to review the Highway Patrol’s policy, as well as further investigate whether there is a need to adopt a new policy in the event that misconduct is found.
The towing business owners will be bringing their concerns to the County Commissioners on Tuesday, Feb. 14.