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Published: Tuesday, 3/15/2005

Tow firms sue city to block police lot

BY TOM TROY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The city of Toledo's proposed police tow lot got a boost from the Toledo Plan Commission yesterday but now faces a lawsuit in U.S. District Court.

The tow lot, which the city hopes will inject much-needed revenue into the budget, received waivers from the plan commission for paving and fencing requirements that apply to private tow lots.

But the Toledo Towing Association, which represents 14 private tow companies, filed suit in U.S. District Court yesterday to block the city's move into the vehicle-storage business.

The lawsuit raises numerous grievances, including the allegation that the $10 fee charged for each police-ordered tow since 2003 is a "kickback" to the city and an illegal tax.

The suit accuses the city of "taking" the tow operators' business without due process or just compensation. It accuses the city of misusing the privilege of Toledo City Council executive sessions to hide information about the tow lot from the public and the tow operators.

A city lawyer denied the charges.

The plan commission yesterday approved a special-use permit for a 21-acre facility at 198 and 4505 Dura Ave. The lot is part of a 35-acre site the city is buying for $708,000.

City law requires private tow lots to be paved and their perimeters to be screened to a height of 6 feet.

The city is seeking approval to pave only 3 1/2 acres at the front of the tow lot that would be most used by the public. And the city wants to install nontransparent screening only in the part of the fence visible from Dura.

Stephen Herwat, executive director of the plan commission, said both waivers are justifiable because most of the site is isolated from public streets and residential view. He said most of the private tow companies have received waivers from the 100-percent paving requirement.

The city says an open fence will make it easier for police to protect the lot.

"What the city seeks here is to not follow the code," charged Joe Jordan, attorney for the towing association. Mr. Jordan also objected to the site's location, which he termed "far north" Toledo. He said it should be centrally located.

Council will have the final say on the waivers and the special-use permit. A hearing of council's zoning and planning committee is set for April 13.

Sixteen private towing companies contract with the city to tow vehicles on police orders and to store the vehicles on their lots until owners reclaim them, or the cars are sold for junk.

Under Mayor Jack Ford's plan, the tow operators would lose the storage part of the business while continuing to be hired to tow vehicles to the city's lot.

Tow operators have said their income will drop from an average of $120 per tow to $55. The operators handle an average of 14,000 tows annually. The loss of revenue will force them to eliminate at least 62 jobs, they say.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction against a municipal tow lot. The suit was assigned to Judge James Carr.

The suit claims city government improperly held an executive session with council when it already had a signed agreement on the price of the property, and had filed for a special-use permit from the plan commission.

The tow operators contend they have a contract with the city, and that they have kept up their end by buying expensive equipment and insurance.

The suit also requests an explanation of the role of Century 21 Kasten Realty as the city's real estate broker.

Kasten voluntarily gave up its claim to a commission after city officials learned that city Commissioner of Real Estate Steven Best had his Ohio real estate license with Kasten.

Mr. Best, who is also the manager of the Marina District project, was put on paid suspension March 7 pending the outcome of an ethics investigation.

Barb Herring, city law director, said the city believes its $10 charge, enacted in 2003, is valid because it recovers city costs. She said the use of an executive session to inform council about a real estate matter was legal under the Ohio open meetings law.

In addition to being more convenient for citizens, the tow lot is expected to generate a surplus for the city of more than $500,000 in 2006.

Contact Tom Troy at:

tomtroy@theblade.com

or 419-724-6058.



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