City towing vendor inflated its fees [The Honolulu Star-Advertiser]
|By Rob Perez, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser|
|McClatchy-Tribune Information Services|
"We're not going to step into doing something wrong right from the beginning," Tandal told the
Leeward Auto was charging a
In some of the more egregious cases, customers overpaid around
By state law, towing companies are able to charge up to
The discounts that Leeward Auto offered in its written bid were among the reasons the city selected the company -- which had no prior experience overseeing police-initiated tows -- over four competing vendors.
Despite that written bid, Tandal in a Friday morning interview with the
But once the newspaper questioned the city about Tandal's comments, Leeward Auto executives were summoned to an impromptu meeting with city officials Friday afternoon. After that meeting, Tandal contacted the
He said company executives immediately told Leeward Auto offices to switch to the lower rates and that roughly 2,000 customers affected by the overcharging would be notified beginning this week that they are entitled to refunds of any overpayments.
But after the newspaper's inquiry, the city intends to demand from Leeward Auto a complete accounting of all charges for police-initiated tows, a plan to refund any overcharges and a plan to ensure compliance with contract terms, Brannon said.
If the company charges more than what the contract specifies, he added, it would constitute a breach of the agreement.
Noting that the city takes contract enforcement and consumer protection seriously, Brannon wrote, "The city greatly appreciates the newspaper bringing this issue to our attention."Asked what monitoring the city does to ensure compliance, Brannon said the police monitors Leeward Auto's performance and the city's motor vehicle control unit investigates submitted complaints. Since
Brannon said five complaints in that period is average and that the city generally is satisfied with the company's performance, excluding billing.
This is the first time the city has turned to a single company to oversee all of
Previously, the island was divided into 13 zones, and towing companies competed for the exclusive contracts for each zone. Before Leeward Auto took over, the city was dealing with about five vendors.
The city switched to the new system partly because officials believed having a single vendor would result in more efficiency and better, more consistent service -- something considered a major benefit given the numerous motorist compliants generated over the years under the old system.
When terms of the new contract were disclosed, however, towing executives who lost out on the city business but had years of experience with police-initiated tows immediately voiced concerns about the financial viability of Leeward Auto's deal. They questioned whether the company could survive given the steep
In a handful of invoices reviewed by the
"It surprised me that Leeward started to not abide by the contract from day one," said
Tandal acknowledged that some cases of customers getting charged more than the cap had been missed by the company's monitoring efforts and inadvertently went through. He attributed those cases to new employees and subcontractors learning a new system.
Several auto insurance companies, which typically pay the towing bills for insured vehicles in accidents, were not aware of overcharging problems when contacted by the
The fumbled start to the new towing contract casts an unflattering light on a city service that has had more than its share of embarrassing low points over the years.
No one agency, he added, wants to assume overall responsibility for oversight.
"Too many things just fall through the cracks," he said.
One of the more recent lowlights in the city's towing saga came in 2010 when the
Stoneridge eventually lost that contract, but the criminal investigation continued.
Before Leeward Auto's Tandal acknowledged that his company had overcharged customers, he told the newspaper that the first month and a half under the new contract had gone well. He said the company handled nearly 1,500 police-initiated tows in the first month -- roughly 50 percent more than the average in the months before Leeward Auto took over.
That increase was an indication the company had put together an efficient system, Tandal added. "It speaks volumes," he said. "Overall, we're delivering."
He was among the 2,000 or so motorists who were overcharged by Leeward Auto. He said he didn't realize he was overpaying when he handed the company
When he learned later about the overcharges, he said he was angry and predicts the other 2,000 motorists will react similarly.
"They're all going to be mad," Lopez said. "Who wouldn't be? It's not fair."
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