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Rules sought for "wildcat wreckers'

If the Ybor City Illuminated Night Parade wasn't enough to give Bob Grieb a headache _ the crowds, the chaos, the drunken revelers screaming in his face _ the towing incident was.

In February, Grieb left his truck in a parking lot near Seventh Avenue and returned later to find an empty space. Only after hours of cab rides, talking to police officers and passing $150 through a chain link fence did Grieb get his Jeep Cherokee back.

"The wreckers charged me too much, and they were rude," said Grieb, a Carrollwood accountant. "The whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth."

Grieb is among many residents who have complained about "wildcat wreckers," a class of unregulated tow trucks that remove cars from private lots. On an average day, 30 cars are towed by unregulatedwreckers, and complaints have been streaming in _ to the Police Department, the transportation commission and to City Council member Rudy Fernandez.

"The bottom line is that residents who felt they were parked legally had been reporting horror stories," said Fernandez, who is spearheading an effort for a new towing ordinance.

"Hopefully, the ordinance will end the unconscionable rates that unregulated trucks have charged in the past."

Today the City Council will consider a proposed ordinance that holds private-lot towers to the same standards as wreckers who haul cars off city streets. Specifically, the ordinance would limit the amount private towers could charge to $75, plus $2 per towed mile.

Some small outfits say that if the rules change, they'll stop towing.

"Private impounds is an ugly business," said Jeff Chouinard, the manager of Trans-Dep towing on Nebraska Avenue. "It's not worth it to us if we only get $75. You got people picking fights with you, throwing things at your trucks, hassling you."

In June, Chouinard used one of his two rigs to haul 15 cars from a private lot near S Howard Avenue. He charged $150 each.

Though complaints about wreckers have come from all parts of the city, the South Howard area, along with Ybor, are two hot spots for unregulated towers.

The number of complaints about these wreckers has steadily risen over the past two years, said Anthony Gonzalo, director of the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission. Renewed interest in Ybor, the opening of the Ice Palace and more night life in Tampa are some reasons, Gonzalo said.

"It's a good time for the ordinance," Gonzalo said. "It's something that will protect the people."

The proposed ordinance will protect absent-minded parkers in a few ways. It will require private lot towers _ Tampa has about 30 of them _ to carry the same amount of insurance as tow trucks used by Tampa Police Department and other public agencies.

The law will reiterate requirements for all towing companies to mark clearly tow-away zones and post fees on signs. And the new law will require wreckers to store impounded cars in well-lit, fenced-in areas.

Jared Moen would have appreciated this. Last week, he parked his pickup in a lot near 16th Street in Ybor, "for, like, 90 seconds," he said. When he dashed out of a furniture store, his truck was gone, towed to an unregulated lot run out of a small home with an overgrown lawn.

"Is this a business or what?" Moen said to himself when he was asked to give a woman $95 in cash for his truck.

"The place didn't look so hot. And you know what? They didn't even have change for a $20."