BERKELEY -- Like many small businesses these days, traffic at tow yards is slow.
In Berkeley that business is likely to drop another 30 percent, tow yard owners say, now that the City Council voted to discontinue their service of towing and impounding cars with unpaid tickets.
The Council voted 8-0 Tuesday night without comment to instead put an immobilizing boot on cars with unpaid parking tickets and eliminate the mind numbing bureaucratic nightmare that goes with it to get the car back.
In its place is a contract with PayLock Inc. to provide a metal contraption called a boot that is placed on a car's wheel when the owner has five or more unpaid tickets. The owner, upon discovering the boot and the immobilized car, can call a "help center," pay off the tickets along with an additional $140 fee, get a code that unlocks the boot and drive off. A $500 credit card deposit ensures the driver will return the boot to a central location.
Tow company owners doing business in Berkeley say they will lose about a third of their business with the new policy.
"We may have to lay people off, there's no question," said Bob Berry, owner of Berry Brothers towing in Oakland, one of four companies that does business with the city of Berkeley. Berry has 15 trucks and 15 employees and has been in business 38 years.
Berry does not expect any sympathy, however, because he knows the experience of retrieving a car from a tow yard can be a joyless one.
"It really doesn't pay to say, 'Hey, what about us?'" Berry said. "People don't really have much sympathy for tow owners or police officers on the enforcement side. It's certainly not going to be a good thing for us."
Berry estimates that of the three cars on average he tows from Berkeley every day, one of those is for unpaid parking tickets. That's about a third of his business down the drain.
In the current system, parking ticket scofflaws who have their cars towed must first go to the city's customer service center downtown and pay their unpaid tickets in return for a tow release form. Then they have to go to the police department and pay $75 for a vehicle release form. Then they must go to the tow yard and pay a $160 tow fee and $65 per day for storage before getting the car back.
David Kotolup, co-owner of Avenue Tow in Berkeley, said he too will lose about 30 percent of his business from the new plan.
"It doesn't make me mad, it's just inevitable," Kotolup said. "With the economy, it's just not hand over fist profit anymore. The volume goes down, but as a business owner I've found other ways to stay afloat."
Kotolup said he now fixes wrecked cars instead of selling them for parts or scrap.
"But it's still not as lucrative as it was five years ago," Kotolup said.
Gale Larks, tow manager for Hustead's Towing in Berkeley since 1966, said he is not too worried about losing business.
"We're already hurting, so it's not going to hurt that much more," Larks said. "There will still be these kids up at UC Berkeley who roll in from Kansas, park their car for the semester, get 30, 40, 50 tickets and when they find out how much it is to get it back, just abandon their car. So those cars will still need to be towed.