When the Metro-Dade Police Department orders a car to be towed, the circumstances are likely to be unpleasant. The driver has been pulled over for a traffic violation, or he has been involved in an accident, or his car has been stolen, stripped, and abandoned. Metro-Dade police currently rely on five private companies to tow about 2000 such vehicles each month.
Those 2000 owners are probably in no mood to hear what a bargain they're getting. But Larry Resnick, who has spent 31 years working for Dade County, would like to tell them. "There is nowhere else in the country where people who have their cars towed by police get a better deal," says Resnick, who heads Dade's contracts and specifications office and directly oversees the private companies that tow for the county. "We're very proud of this contract."
Resnick points out that for the last sixteen years the county has been using a system of competitive bids to decide which companies will tow for Metro police in different parts of the county. The bidding is weighted to encourage companies to offer very low rates for the towing and storage of cars -- as opposed to trucks or other vehicles. Over the years, increased competition has pushed the bids steadily downward, so that today all companies with county contracts tow cars virtually for free -- as long as the car is mobile -- and usually charge only a seventeen-dollar administrative fee for the first three days of storage. (By contrast, companies towing for the City of Miami charge at least $55, even if the car is retrieved the same day.)
Those who tow for Dade County still make money, Resnick explains, because they normally charge for storage after three days and for special towing. In addition, they often collect proceeds on the sale of totaled cars because insurance companies and owners would rather not deal with the wreckage. Although profitability varies from company to company, Resnick says the intense competition for contracts is proof enough there's money to be made. He also notes that the current system is supported by his boss, County Manager Joaquin Aviso, the American Automobile Association, and much of the towing industry itself.
So it was a shock when County Commissioner James Burke, at a July 15 meeting of the full commission, asked that this year's so-called bid advertisement be withdrawn and sent for further study to the public safety committee, of which he is chairman. Because bids were due in just two weeks, Burke's action effectively scuttled plans for a smooth transition between the old towing contracts, which were to expire August 27, and the new ones. After the bid proposal languished in Burke's committee, the commission eventually voted to extend the existing contracts on a month-to-month basis, until November 27 at the latest.
On September 13 Burke finally convened a towing workshop among industry representatives, during which he and Commissioner Pedro Reboredo deflected angry questions from several tow-company owners. Many of those owners, frustrated by what they called Burke's stalling tactics, openly accused him of favoring a man named Johnny Dollar, owner of Dade Towing and Recovery.
Some of Dollar's competitors find his last name particularly appropriate. Three years ago, when the county's eleven towing contracts were last up for bid, Dollar won six of them. (The contracts conform to eleven geographical zones covering all of Dade County.) Though he offered to tow cars for only 50 cents each, Dollar's contracts are estimated to have brought him hundreds of thousands of dollars. (Dollar will not comment regarding his company's profits.)
This time around, however, county administrators, concerned about Dollar's control of more than half of Dade's towing business, accepted a recommendation from the Metro-Dade Police Department: Change the contracts to limit each towing company to a maximum of two zones. In response, Dollar developed his own detailed plan, which he presented to Burke and other members of the public safety committee.
Dollar says he is willing to accept a limitation on the number of zones a company can control, but he proposes other changes. For example, he wants to charge drivers $55 if police order their car to be towed. He also wants the county to impose stiffer qualifications on bidders; so stiff, in fact, that only a few companies A Dollar's among them A could ever hope to meet them, according to Larry Resnick. The Metro-Dade veteran explains that Dollar's proposal would require towing companies seeking business with the county to own tens of thousands of dollars in new equipment, including a "Class D" tow truck, used for hauling the heaviest vehicles. "In my sixteen years working with the towing industry, we have never had the need to use a 'Class D,'" Resnick says. (In addition to his tow company, Dollar owns the Wrecker Collection, a principal South Florida supplier of tow trucks, but he denies he'll benefit if more stringent equipment requirements are adopted. "That's ludicrous," he says. "The current equipment requirement was designed in the Seventies. We're just trying to professionalize towing and bring it into the Nineties.")
Resnick also takes exception to Dollar's suggested elimination of a provision allowing tow companies ten days to comply with county requirements after winning a contract. The clause is designed to help smaller companies that may have limited financial credit. "[Dollar's] proposal," Resnick contends, "is an obvious effort by a few firms to grandfather themselves into county contracts for years to come."
If Resnick is miffed by such an effort to reduce competition, Commissioner Burke is apparently intrigued by it, despite his avowed goal of bringing more small, minority-owned companies into the bidding process. At the September 13 workshop, Burke asked Resnick to prepare a comparison of Dollar's proposal and the county's. Critics such as Don Lawson, whose wife, Ronda, owns D&R Towing of Opa-locka, was angered by Dollar's seemingly effortless access to the commissioner and the use of Metro-Dade's official logo on the cover of his proposal. The logo appeared above the false notation, "Issued by Metropolitan Dade County." Says Lawson: "When I received it, I thought it was an official document. I guess it's as good as official since Burke and Dollar are such good buddies."
Lawson, whose wife hopes to win a county contract, flatly states his belief that something is amiss: "The commissioner involved with Johnny Dollar has been bullshitted or worse." Perceptions of impropriety are shared by other owners of small towing companies who would like to bid for the new contracts. "I do believe something strange is going on," says Dagmar Del Rosal, who owns Downtown Towing. "Everybody in county government except Burke is for moving ahead with the bidding process as it was prepared. When have you ever heard of a commissioner worried about whether a towing company like Dollar's is making money or not?"
Dollar has reportedly made it clear to smaller companies that they are wasting their time by opposing his proposal. Both Lawson and his wife claim they are among a dozen people who heard Dollar boast of having had dinner with Burke at the commissioner's home. The owner of another company, speaking on condition of anonymity, adds that she, too, heard the statement. "He told us that he had Burke under his control," says the owner, "and that we should worry about trying to influence other commissioners."
Johnny Dollar, a tall, burly man, rejects insinuations that he has gained influence over Burke. "The accusations being tossed around are not at all true," he asserts. "The rumor mill is totally unbelievable. Commissioner Burke did only one favor for this industry: he allowed a discussion of the issue in his committee." In defense of his proposal, Dollar notes that it is supported by several other towing companies. "I would rather not name them," he says. "I just want to make it clear that Johnny Dollar does not want to take over the towing industry. Johnny Dollar wants to be one of the boys."
Both Dollar and Burke say they have never dined together. "Even if [Dollar] did say it, it's absolutely false," Burke insists. The commissioner also denies he is supporting Dollar's plan, stressing, for example, that he does not agree with the proposed tougher equipment requirements. Burke maintains that he simply wants further study of the issue. Of special concern, he says, is bidding that encourages companies to tow cars at virtually no cost while charging more for other services. "The real problem is that Dade County is perpetuating a smokescreen," he argues. "We are allowing these zero bids that are not based in reality."
As for the rumors of impropriety, Burke dismisses them as political lobbying tools employed by those determined to maintain the current system. "I've been in politics for ten years, and [these current allegations] are not the worst things that have ever been said of me," he observes. "The fact is -- and I've told them -- that they're spending too much time on this conspiracy theory and not enough on trying to resolve the problem. And I want to resolve the problem."
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Many interested parties believed a resolution would be achieved at last week's meeting of the public safety committee. At that meeting Larry Resnick presented his response to Dollar's proposal, rejecting most of it out of hand. He recommended that the committee adopt the bidding advertisement in virtually the same form it had existed for more than two months -- with one major change: that the two-zone-per-company limit be reduced to one zone, as requested by Commissioner Reboredo.
But Burke abruptly left that meeting during public discussion of the towing issue, explaining later that he had to attend an important luncheon. Reboredo also departed, leaving only Commissioners Natacha Millan and Javier Souto, neither of whom had attended the towing workshop the previous week. "Frankly, I find myself in a very uncomfortable position...because I want this item decided," Millan said just before sending Resnick's amended document back to the full commission without a committee recommendation.
Resnick says that even if the commission approves a new bid advertisement at its next meeting on October 5, the current contracts will have to remain in place for at least another month after the November 27 extension deadline. The process of bidding and assigning new contracts, he explains, takes at least two and a half months. In the meantime, Johnny Dollar's lucrative contracts remain in effect. "Every delay in this process puts money into Johnny Dollar's pocket," complains lobbyist Robert Levy, who represents several smaller towing companies. "I have known and supported Jim Burke for many years," Levy adds. "I would like to believe he's only interested in encouraging debate on this issue. But unfortunately government is all about perception, and here we're dealing with a situation that looks very bad.