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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

When Ashley Durden walked out of her University Commons apartment, she faced many Gainesville residents' worst nightmare: her car was gone.

The white Ford Expedition had been towed by Elite Towing for being parked in a visitor's space without the proper decal.

The nightmare only got worse for Durden, an SFCC student, when the company refused to accept her credit card, which is a violation of city rules.

When Durden tried to pay the fine using her debit card, the person working the front desk tried to charge her an extra ,2, she said.

A GPD officer arrived on the scene and discovered there was a credit card machine behind the front desk, according to the citation report. The officer fined the company ,300 for improper procedure.

Improper towing procedures, like the one encountered by Durden are common in Gainesville, said Keith Kameg, spokesman for Gainesville Police Department.

GPD is concerned with the increasing violations of city towing rules and has intensified efforts to crack down on improper towing, he said.

In September, GPD issued about 90 citations.

Most of the citations were to Elite, Watson's and Ultimate Towing. Elite had 16, Ultimate had 22 and Watson's had 62.

Half of the violations for each company were issued when a company stored a towed vehicle in an impound lot other than its own.

"The towing situation in this town is getting ridiculous," Kameg said.

Celeste Forron, owner of Watson's, said she's fighting the citations.

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"The amount of citations has become a little extreme," she said. "I'm not sure why this is such an issue."

Celeste Forron explained that Watson's, Elite and Ultimate all use the same two lots: a main lot and an overflow lot used on busy weekends.

They also share a central dispatch location but have separate phone numbers. Other companies have multiple yards they use to store the cars, too, she said.

"Imagine if Starbucks or Wal-Mart only used one location," she said. "That's what this ordinance expects from me."

But Kameg said he doesn't think the issue is that simple.

"This is absolutely and utterly ridiculous that there are this many violations over something as basic as where cars have to go," Kameg said.

The first time a company is found in violation of a point-of-tow-to-point-of-storage requirement, it pays ,125, he said. A second violation is ,250, and each further violation is ,500.

And while citations continue to be written, Kameg said, he doesn't think the violations will go down until the tow companies have to start paying the fines.

Celeste Forron said the city makes money off roam towing, too.

She said apartment complexes must pay the city ,47 to let the towing companies have the right to tow in their complexes.

The companies must also pay permitting fees for their trucks, drivers and insurance.

Lt. Peter Backhaus, commander of GPD's support services division, is in charge of issuing the citations.The civil citation is complete once the violations are issued. The charge is then taken before a judge who will determine if the companies are innocent or guilty of the violation.

A company can lose its roam towing privileges for six months if it receives three convictions in a year, Backhaus said.

It can be suspended for a year if it is cited three more times in the same year, he said.

There have been no convictions, and no fines have been paid because no cases have gone to court. Backhaus said the courts will not hear any of the citation cases until December, the earliest possible trial date.

GPD, city commissioners and towing companies are scheduled to go over a proposed "Towing Bill of Rights" today at City Hall.

Kameg said the new bill would try to clarify existing city ordinances and help vehicle owners understand what procedures are improper.

Kameg said the city commission has created good towing ordinances, but GPD continues to have problems with tow companies that violate them.

Celeste Forron has opted for only one hearing that will lump all the citations together.

"We're not trying to hurt people," she said. "My drivers are often considered lower than the drug dealers. We're just trying to serve our customers: the business owners. It's kind of disheartening."

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