San Francisco Stolen Car Towing Fees Would Drop Under New Proposal

Victims of car theft could get some relief from San Francisco towing fees under a new proposal before the city's Board of Supervisors. (Robert S. Donovan/Flickr)

Victims of car theft could get some relief from San Francisco towing fees under a new proposal before the city’s Board of Supervisors. (Robert S. Donovan/Flickr)

By Alex Emslie

Some insult could drop off the injury of having a car stolen and then recovered in San Francisco, under a new tow fee scheme before the city’s Board of Supervisors.

The city’s current system allows a car-theft victim 20 minutes to get his or her car from the street where police find it. If they can’t get there, car owners are charged close to $500, according to Paul Rose, spokesman for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. That charge includes a $263 SFMTA towing fee and a $220.75 contractor’s towing fee.

Then, the unfortunate theft victim gets a four-hour window before the contractor’s storage fee starts charging — that’s $57.25 for the first day and $66.75 for each day after that.

“You’re already victimized once when your car is stolen, and then to be effectively victimized again, it just struck me as unfair,” said the proposal’s author, Supervisor Scott Wiener. “It’s also an economic justice issue because for people who are lower income, their car might be their lifeline to get to work, and if they can’t afford to get their car out of the towing yard, that’s a huge hardship.”

The National Insurance Crime Bureau awarded the Bay Area the dubious distinction of having the highest auto theft rate in the nation Tuesday, with 29,093 reported thefts in 2014. Any of those cars recovered by San Francisco police would likely be wrapped into the city’s infamously high towing fees.

Wiener says some of them are unavoidable.

“The cost of doing business is more expensive in San Francisco,” Wiener said, citing high labor and rent costs for the city’s towing vendor, Auto Return. “It’s not surprising that there are higher costs, which leads to higher charges. We should always be looking at ways that we can have a system that has enough of a disincentive so that people avoid having their cars towed, but isn’t punitive.”

Enter the less punitive scheme before the Board of Supervisors. The proposed eight-month extension to the city’s contract with Auto Return would waive all of the initial fees for San Francisco residents. Residents of other cities, who may have had their cars stolen elsewhere and dumped in San Francisco, would pay just $133 — half of the city’s towing fee — and the rest would be waived.

Residents of the city would get a full 48-hour grace period before the new $68.25 daily fee would start to accrue, and nonresidents would get 24 hours.

“I would ideally like to see the window a little bit longer, a little bit more relief,” Wiener said, “but there are also revenue impacts to our transportation agency when we reduce fees, and so we’re trying to balance that.”

Rose said the SFMTA expected to lose between $200,000 and $300,000 over the proposed eight-month contract extension — not a huge hit for the agency’s approximately $1 billion budget.

“We will have to work to cover those costs, but it is something that we are working with the Board of Supervisors and Auto Return to implement,” he said.

A spokeswoman with the San Francisco Transit Riders Union said the group is generally against reductions to the MTA’s budget that favor car owners, but the group does not know enough about the proposal to comment on it directly.

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