Investigations

Vehicle booting could be a 'free for all' if Austin doesn't set price cap

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A sign on Kung Fu Tea's door in West Campus warns customers not to park in the parking lot at 705 W. 24th St., "not even for 10 seconds."

That's all it took for an 18-year-old University of Texas at Austin college student to get a boot on her car.

The teenager's mother, Shawn, who did not want her last name used, says her daughter thought she was in the parking lot for the tea shop, but as soon as she set foot off the parking lot and turned back around, two men were booting the car.

The company was Central Towing, a company Joe Santiago took over at the beginning of the year. It cost Shawn's daughter $150 to remove the boot. 

"It's a quick $150 per minute it seems like, so these companies are making a gross amount of money," Shawn said. "It's obscene." 

Currently, the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, or TDLR, regulates towing prices, but there is no limit on how much booting companies can charge. The owner of Central Towing says booting could get worse after Sept. 1, 2018. 

Last year, the state legislature passed House Bill 2065 to deregulate booting.

TDLR told KXAN it’s not doing a lot of work in this area and wanted to streamline the process, so oversight will be left to cities. Right now, TDLR only has 11 booting companies on record with the state.

Right now, neither the state nor the city of Austin has set prices on what booting companies can charge.

"If you're driving a Mercedes or a Range Rover and I want to charge you $500, I can. If I want to charge you $20, I can," said Santiago, who currently charges $150 per boot. "It's really a free-for-all anywhere outside. You go to Bastrop, you can go to San Marcos, you can go anywhere right now and boot. There's no law. Come Sept. 1, there is no law." 

Austin officials are up against the clock, presenting recommendations to the Urban Transportation Commission Tuesday night as a first step. The Austin Police Department is expected to recommend a $50 cap on booting, which would bring booting in line with the city's current tow drop fee of $50. 

But reaching out to a dozen surrounding cities, KXAN Investigates discovered many aren’t even aware the change is coming. 

While his money-maker is booting, Santiago believes it needs to be regulated and regulated properly, which he says isn't happening. 

"Someone needs to defend the businesses that need the parking spaces," Santiago said.

He feels there also needs to be better signage for customers. "If you really want to protect them, then put a sign that says exactly who the parking is for and what is going to happen. Your car is going to get booted or towed immediately. You know the fee and it should be a different sign than the towing sign,” Santiago said.

Who is Booting You

Along with lowering booting fees, the city of Austin also wants to make booting operators clearly identifiable and implement background checks, similar with what they do with tow truck drivers now. 

"You want to make sure that when somebody represents or when you're dealing with somebody, you don't have to worry about their past history," said APD Cmdr. Eric Miesse. 

"What they're doing is just so unethical to me,” Shawn said. “They should wear uniforms, they should have ID, they should present that ID immediately and if they’re right there, where the car is parking, they should be required to give some kind of notification.”

Though booting complaint numbers filed with the state have been low, KXAN found disciplinary action taken against booting and towing companies are up across Texas. It went from 225 cases in 2015 to 370 last year. So far this year, there have been 139 cases through TDLR.

Since the TDLR won't be handling those cases anymore, cities will now have to take on those extra duties. Many of the cities outside of Austin we contacted said they do not plan to create additional regulations or they currently do not regulate tows from private property. 

Miesse told KXAN, without city regulations, “There’s that possibility it could be every company for themselves and it doesn’t matter how many boots they could put on a vehicle. Could they charge for each boot that they put on? So without having some structure and ordinance in place, it’s hard to say what would happen.” 

KXAN has found since the state's starting to remove its control, there's confusion over which companies are currently licensed.

TDLR says if a company, like Central Towing, has an expired booting license, it's not supposed to operate. But in a letter, the state wrote it "ceased all licensing and enforcement efforts based on the passing of this law." TDLR says it's extended all active booting licenses until the end of August. 

UPDATE:

At Tuesday's Urban Transportation Commission meeting, Miesse confirmed APD's recommendations will go to council for approval Aug. 9.

During the meeting, commission member Mario Champion said, "The danger is, if the boot fee is too low, then the profit motive encourages towing. Which is a much bigger pain in every way." 

It's something Santiago shared with KXAN in the days leading up to the meeting. 

"If they structure this at $50, then they have nowhere else to go. But to these other little towns and start booting," he said, of APD's proposed $50 booting cap. "We'd be out of business. That's why I'm going into the towing. There's no way you can do it." 

For comparison, APD said the current cap on booting in Dallas is $100. In San Antonio it's $35 and in Houston it's $25. 

In the proposed ordinance, KXAN found some groups will be excluded because of another state law. The rules do not apply to commercial office building owners or managers who boot in their building's parking lot. When KXAN asked if that meant they could charge whatever they want, APD confirmed. 

"The way it's set out, it's going to be a fight at some point," Detective Thomas Ballard said, because of how the law could be interpreted. 


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