Higgins agreed the towing company was acting on the township’s behalf – although he indicated the township should have known what it was charging.
Higgins said issuing the partial refund checks shows that township officials are “responding to the citizens who came to us with a problem. We are responding to our citizens whether they broke the rules or not. They’re still out over $300. But they came to us and asked for help and we’ve done what we can to help them.”
“I have no problem with towing these cars,” said Higgins, adding residents have an obligation to know and follow township rules. But he also said those snow emergency rules need to be consistently enforced.
Residents were warned in November
Fosselman said the November township newsletter included an article explaining procedures homeowners should follow in a snow emergency.
He read part of that article to commissioners: “If a snow emergency is declared, it is mandatory that all vehicles be removed from snow emergency routes. This allows access to snow-plowing equipment so roads can remain open to emergency vehicles. Each snow emergency route is clearly marked with signs.”
Fosselman told commissioners he went to the Clearview Manor and Shepherd Hills neighborhoods to see if some snow emergency routes were indeed properly posted with signs. “They were very well posted.” He’s not buying the argument that people did not know the signs exist.
The manager said that November newsletter article also warned: “Anyone in violation of snow emergency requirements may be subject to fines and costs up to $1,000 per incident. Vehicles in violation will be towed. Towing charges will be the responsibility of the vehicle owner, payable directly to the towing service and are not part of Lower Macungie revenue.”
The manager said that reminder has been placed in the township’s winter newsletter for the last six years.
Breakdown of towing charges
Fosselman said the towing rates seemed higher than normal because Mechanics Plus Towing imposed both towing and winching charges.
He said the towing charge alone was $200.
The company’s standard winching charge is an additional $175, “which I thought was extremely high,” admitted the manager.
But he said the towing company only charged $100 winching fees during the snow emergency, for a total fee of $300 per vehicle.
He said Mechanics Plus Towing also charged mileage and storage fees, which is why bills came to about $400 per vehicle.
“We felt the cost was a little bit more than it should have been,” said Fosselman. “The pricing got everyone upset – including me. I thought it was a little out of line.”
In conversations with the towing company since the controversy broke, Fosselman said in the future Mechanics Plus Towing will charge only $35 to $50 for winching, depending on the make of the car. He said the towing fee will remain $200.
He said the new rates are similar to those charged by other towing companies.
“We explained to them that we would like to work with them in the future,” said Fosselman. “They are a very good company. And they want to work with the township, to continue doing towing services.”
The solicitor’s opinion
At Fosselman’s request, township Solicitor Richard Somach reviewed state law and determined Pennsylvania does not set a limit on fees a towing company can charge.
Somach also determined the township can enact an ordinance setting such fees.
The solicitor told commissioners that municipalities with limits on towing fees benefit from having competing companies bidding to provide the service “so you’re able to drive the price down.”
Somach suggested Lower Macungie may not be able to do that, because other local towing companies don’t have enough staff, trucks or storage space to handle that many vehicles in a snow emergency.
He said the township could get competitive bidding if it has three or four qualified bidders, but predicted Mechanics Plus Towing will be the only towing company that can meet Lower Macungie’s requirements.