Protecting businesses or predatory towing?
Saturday , August 30, 2014 - 5:21 PM
OGDEN — When Brittney Scott and her grandmother scored free tickets to a recent Ogden Raptors baseball game, they looked forward to an inexpensive evening of entertainment.
Little did Scott know, it would end up costing her more than $200.
On Aug. 20, the Harrisville woman attended Standard-Examiner night at Lindquist Field with two of her children, a cousin-in-law, and her grandmother, Ruth Summy, of Ogden. They’d parked in the Ogden City Plaza, entering the lot at 2250 Grant Ave. and finding a parking space in front of a vacant storefront at the south end.
When they returned after the game, Scott’s 2003 GMC Envoy was gone.
Recalls Scott: “I thought, ‘I swear that’s where I parked. Where’s my car? Where’d my car go? Did somebody steal my car?’ ”
She called police. That’s when the dispatcher broke the bad news.
“They told me, ‘It looks like you’ve been towed,’ ” Scott said. “I asked, ‘Why was I towed?’ They said it was for a parking violation.”
It’s a scenario that has played out countless times in Ogden in recent years. And many of those incidents have involved one company — Slickrock Towing & Recovery.
Slickrock was at the center of a controversy two years ago in Ogden, for towing the vehicles of customers of The Home Depot who parked in the former Fred Meyer parking lot nearby. Now, the towing company is involved in a similar controversy at the downtown Ogden City Plaza.
Mark Johnson, chief administrative officer for Ogden, says the city has received numerous complaints about parking enforcement there.
“The owners of the building have actually hired what I call a predatory towing company, and they are very aggressive about towing people out of that lot,” Johnson said. “There are signs posted, but they’re not very big and it’s a little confusing.”
Scott says she was confused. Although she has since seen the “No Lindquist Field parking” signs posted on light poles in the lot, as well as at most of the entrances to the lot, she insists she saw no sign on the east-side entrance, where she entered, nor along the row of parking spaces against the strip mall where she parked.
On the night in question, four vehicles were towed from the lot and impounded, according to Lt. Kevin Cottrell of the Ogden Police Department.
“I know they’ve towed vehicles from that lot in the past — I’d say fairly often,” he said. “We are aware of it.”
But Cottrell also said there’s nothing police can do, since it’s private property and the owners have posted it as such.
Johnson says Slickrock “is really kind of famous” for its aggressive towing tactics.
“We all have troubles with them,” Johnson said, referring to other Utah cities like Salt Lake City and Provo.
Todd Petersen, sales manager for Slickrock Towing & Recovery, says he gets what people are saying.
“Nobody likes us. Nobody wants to be towed,” he said.
But, Petersen says, his company provides a valuable service for local businesses.
“Ogden City Plaza is surrounded by a lot of things that attract a lot of people,” he said. “Parking is at a premium. It’s private property, not a public lot.”
Petersen asks people to look at the issue from the business owner’s point of view.
“When there are 20 parking spaces for a restaurant, and there are two people in the restaurant but no parking left, that’s a problem,” he said.
Cottrell says OPD receives a call from Slickrock each time the company tows a vehicle. That way, dispatchers can head off calls from motorists thinking their vehicles were stolen, and an officer doesn’t have to be sent to the scene. Scott says a police officer did respond to their incident.
Once they learned their SUV had been towed, Scott and Summy say there was little else to do but wait for a ride from a relative.
“The officer said there’s nothing they could do because it’s private property,” Summy said. “But they need to get more signs. We didn’t see any no-parking signs.”
Scott says they sat on the curb that night and waited for her mother-in-law to come pick them up. The two women weren’t happy they had to wait in downtown Ogden, at 10:30 p.m., with a 4-year-old and a 1-year-old.
“And,” Scott says, “it was raining.”
While waiting for her mother-in-law to arrive, Scott called Slickrock, asking if she could come and get the car seats out of her vehicle — so she could get her children home safely.
Scott says Slickrock initially wasn’t going to allow her to retrieve the car seats, but one of the employees eventually relented.
“He said, ‘Go ahead and get your car seats. I have kids, too,’ ” Scott recalls.
A Slickrock employee also informed Scott that if she waited until the next day to pick up her car, it would cost her less, because at the time she went to pick up the car seats — around 11 p.m. — an after-hours fee would bring the total to $272.
So Scott picked up her vehicle the next day, at a cost of $221.75. She still thinks that fee is much too steep.
“My brother-in-law just got a ticket for speeding, and he had to pay a lot less than I paid,” she said.
Johnson has heard all sorts of horror tales about Slickrock Towing’s heavy-handed tactics.
“For example, we have heard stories about delivery trucks that have pulled up there to make a delivery, and the driver comes back out and their truck’s gone,” Johnson said.
He’s also heard that umpires at the Raptors games, as well as the team doctor, have had their vehicles towed.
“One baseball game night, last year, they towed 19 cars,” Johnson said. “Do the math on that — do the math of $220 times 19. That’s a pretty good night’s work.”
Petersen said people may think his company is making a killing, but he says the expenses mount after leasing an impound yard, paying for the trucks, paying for the fuel in the trucks, and other outlays.
“UDOT reviews all of these fees,” he said. “That’s how much it costs for us to do business.”
Rachel Carlson, of North Ogden, is a student at Paul Mitchell The School Ogden, a beauty college in the Ogden City Plaza. She’s seen the vehicles getting towed from the lot.
“And since the (Ogden LDS) Temple open house, they’ve even been a little stricter about parking,” she said of Slickrock.
Drew Gardner, the front-desk manager at Paul Mitchell, says parking has long been a frustration at the plaza, and that students have to park some distance away from the school. One of the companies in the plaza, Teleperformance, uses a number of the stalls in the lot, and those stalls are painted in blue paint.
“Teleperformance gets the blue stalls, we’re only allowed to park in the white stalls,” Gardner said. “But the Teleperformance people also park in the white stalls.”
Although frustrated, Gardner believes the parking situation will eventually be solved.
“We’ll figure it out,” he said.
Johnson says the city has contacted the owner of the lot — who lives out of state — but they haven’t been able to persuade him to call off the parking dogs. Johnson senses that the owner of the lot is feeling pressure from Teleperformance.
“I think he feels some pressure that they want so many parking spaces, and he feels he needs to provide the parking he has promised them,” Johnson said.
Slickrock Towing was hired by Vectra Management Group, which manages Ogden City Plaza for the property owner. Chloe Gehrke, principal broker for Vectra, says her company has struggled with this issue.
“What’s hard about it is, we are truly in a really tough position,” Gehrke said. “On one hand, we have to protect the rights of our tenants and the businesses running there. But on the other hand, we’d love nothing more than to give free parking to everybody attending the game. We really would. Honestly. … But the unfortunate side is, if we did that, and our tenants didn’t have the stalls they rely on, that affects their livelihood.”
All due respect to Ogden City, but Gehrke disagrees with Johnson’s description of Slickrock’s practices as “predatory.”
“Predatory is a little strong, but I don’t know,” she said. “I support Ogden city very much, and if Mark has some suggestions, great.”
Gehrke says she’s told “everybody under the sun” that she’s open to thoughts on how to handle the parking problem at Ogden City Plaza.
“Give us another idea,” she said. “What else could we do? How could we better help everybody?”
But until then, Gehrke says, the parking enforcement situation is what it is.
“To be very honest with you, we’ve hired a company that basically monitors the lot, they do watch for people to drive in, get out of their vehicle and go to the game,” she said. “Because there’s not many other ways we can catch them when they’re doing that.”
Gehrke also says she’s been pleased with the way Slickrock Towing has responded to folks’ complaints.
“If there’s a concern, they address it immediately,” she said.
But Gehrke also acknowledges that they won’t be able to please everyone.
“It’s hard. Nobody wants their car towed,” she said. “They’re the bad guys. I see how people see that, I do. … We want to please everybody, but it’s hard to do that and protect our tenants as well. And our tenants are our No. 1 priority.”
While Johnson concedes the Ogden City Plaza lot is private property, he says city officials are looking at ways to mitigate what he calls aggressive towing.
“We are thinking about passing some legislation, maybe, to restrict a little bit some of the things they’re doing there,” he said.
Johnson says he wishes there were something he could say to the owner of the parking lot to change the way things are being handled.
“You know, like, ‘You need to be reasonable,’ ” he said. “And that’s what we’re looking at, is maybe there’s an ordinance we’ll be able to pass that has some reasonableness about it.”
That could involve how long a vehicle needs to be in the lot before it can be towed, or perhaps a minimum size for the lettering on the no-parking signage, according to Johnson.
“We’re working on it, and we know we need to work on it, because it’s just unfair,” he said.
Petersen said his company will make the signs as big as the city requires, but he doesn’t hold out much hope.
“I honestly believe it doesn’t make a difference, but we’re happy to comply with city ordinances,” Petersen said.
Petersen said his company has contracts with some properties in Salt Lake City with signs that are double the size — and with three or four times as many signs as required — and people still say they didn’t see them.
“I’m telling you, these people know,” Petersen said of illegal parkers. “They say they don’t, but they get out of their car and I guarantee, 99 out of a hundred are wondering if they can get away with it.”
Petersen says his company has been involved in trying to improve the image of the towing industry.
“We said, ‘Look, we hate predatory towing.’ So we proposed, ‘Let’s do some stuff to clean up the industry,’ ” he said.
Petersen says his company came up with a bill of rights that it now gives out to those who get towed, showing information like the fees they’re allowed to collect by law.
And whereas two years ago Slickrock operated on a cash-only basis, they now take debit and credit cards.
Of course, none of this helps Brittney Scott. The impound fee she had to pay put a sizable dent in her monthly budget.
“I got paid today, and it’s already almost gone,” she said. “I could barely afford this. And, I had to go get school supplies for my daughter.”
Scott wonders why, if spotters are already watching the parking lot, they don’t simply warn motorists not to park there — “especially people with kids.”
“Why couldn’t they come over to us and say, ‘You can’t park there?’ ” she asked. “I think it’s rude. It’s evil.”
Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/SEMarkSaal.’