CLEARWATER — The city's protocol for towing wreckage from a car crash has been the same for 30 years. Police dispatchers cycle through a rotation, awarding the business to the towing yard at the top of the list.
For a dozen Clearwater towing shops, those 40 calls a week became business they could depend on. The city allowed companies to charge drivers up to $95 for each hookup, plus fuel and fees for extras like dollies. More lucrative work, like body repair on the damaged cars, often followed.
But as city budgets have dried up, officials have suggested dissolving the list. They say that contracting the jobs to one towing company would be more efficient, easier to maintain, and would save the city about $27,000 a year.
That proposed change has wrecker drivers fuming. They say their small shops, many of them on the city's rotation for decades, could lose thousands of dollars a week in work.
"All us mom-and-pop shops are at their mercy," said Leonard Bosi, a manager at Jimmie's Auto Body and Towing. "We've got guys who are going to end up losing their houses, their cars, everything."
The new contract would unburden police dispatchers, end confusion over complaints and establish fines for late wrecker drivers, Clearwater purchasing manager George McKibben wrote in an e-mail. It would also erase a $30 fee the city pays for impounding.
Responses to the city's request for proposals are due next month. Officials expect a contract will be signed by the end of the year.
Owners of small tow lots say the contract, which requires a 20,000-square-foot storage compound, caters unfairly to big businesses. At a city meeting Monday, some owners in the rotation said they felt surrounded by larger companies, headquartered out of town.
"It was like a bunch of hawks standing around a bunch of little birds," said Pete Dimilta, owner of Pete's Towing and Recovery.
City Council members have offered no apologies, saying any change that could save money was worth a shot. "Our responsibility to the taxpayers," council member Paul Gibson said, "is to run the city government as efficiently as we can."
But Ginger Darling, a driver and owner of Nationwide Towing for 30 years, said paying less for work and cutting out competition could end up costing the city more than it saves.
"What did your mama teach you when you were a kid?" Darling said. "She taught you No. 1, you get what you pay for. And she taught you No. 2, have a Plan B."
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or email@example.com.