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One Tow Over the Line

Floyd Samuel says there auto be a law against what the city is doing to him.

There an old-timer auctioneer with a microphone is pointing to the hood of a car. Patrons with yellow cards gather round, and the bidding begins. "Can I get $120, $120, $120, $120?" he spits out in rapid-fire singsong cadences, pointing to a beat-up white sedan.

The abandoned automotive booty reclaimed from the streets of Denver is diverse. You have Saabs and Camaros, Hondas and Jeep Cherokees, late models and old cars. Some motorcycles. A tan pickup with "Sanford and Son" written on one side. Even a lawnmower and a snowblower.

The prospective buyers cut across race and class lines. Poor people are looking for a car, any car. Middle-class types are here scoping out a possible second car. The rich--they're looking for investments. Buy a car, sell it, profit.

But this isn't easy street for anyone. Most of the cars look undrivable. Banged-up hoods, flat tires, missing wheels, smashed windows, front ends that are almost completely crushed--and you don't even want to know about the upholstery. "Where's the goddamn dip stick?" says one would-be buyer, bent deep inside the hood of a Chevy Beretta.

Rule of thumb: Never assume any vehicle will start. "Ninety-eight percent of them you have to tow," says one customer. "A lot of these are good parts cars. Some of those are pretty hammered."

Gene Eatinger, an auto repair guy, is here for parts. From a hundred feet away, he can spot the pristine front end of a late Eighties Nissan. The headlight alone, he says, will go for $150. Eatinger is a pro, and pros don't often come to the city lot. Eatinger's only here to help a friend.

This is the turf of novices, average Joes, folks liable to drive the price of cars up well beyond what they're worth.

The first cars sold are police cruisers stripped of their decals and sirens. One goes for $3,600. Cash.

It's the cash that makes private towing outfits suspect the city's intentions.

Wyatt's Towing tows between 7,000 and 10,000 cars a year; of those, it sells 2,800. And these days, Samuel says, the city is a primary competitor. "To me they're getting away from service, getting into the business," he says. "The industry is getting tighter and tighter and tighter."

The city, he adds, "takes abandoned cars and sells them, almost the same service we do, only we do it on private parking and they do it on the street."

But Enriquez, the impound facility commander, disagrees. "The difference is ours is a public auction," he says. "We infringe on their territory under no circumstances. The average person, when they buy from Wyatt's Towing, he's already got the price on there. We just say you're buying the tow."

Towing companies worry not just about the city's size, however, but also about rules that seem to give it an unfair advantage.

According to a state statute revised in 1986, when a private towing company sells an abandoned car, it can keep only the cost of towing and storing the car. That calculation is based on $50 for a tow and a $4 storage fee per day, for a maximum of sixty days--which means the most a company can make is $290. Any proceeds beyond that must be remitted to the state.

There's no cap in place for the city, though. "How come we can't sell cars for more than $290?" asks Bill Harmon, a Wyatt's Towing worker. "This ain't no free country. They sell the same fucking thing for $3,000 or $4,000 more. They're racketeering. That's what they're doing."

"An enforcement agency has a recognized different purpose than a towing company," responds John Duncan, deputy director of the state's Motor Vehicle Division. "The police can sell it for whatever they can get and keep the proceeds."

Besides, he adds, tow-truck drivers also enjoy some special privileges. For example, they can acquire liens on cars more easily than private citizens can; once they've towed the vehicle away, if the owner doesn't come for it within sixty days, the tow operator can simply have the title transferred over, a process that takes only a few days. "To apply for that title, you and I would have to post bond three times the amount of the vehicle," Duncan says. "Tow operators do have a privilege beyond the average citizen."

In order to make sure private towing companies didn't abuse that privilege, the statutes were changed twelve years ago to make sure operators weren't overzealous in selling off cars whose owners proved difficult to reach. But the result, Samuel says, is that private business is punished, while the city is rewarded with hefty profits--profits it can use to expand the pound so it can sell more cars so it can make more money.

"If word got out," Samuel says, "every goddamn tow company in the state would be screaming."

The city is "towing in a lot of cars they can sell," says the Denver cop. "They almost became a private car dealership. They know they're making quite a bit of money."

The city's not in it for the money, Enriquez responds. "All our tows are violations of city and state law," he says. "So we're not competing against anyone." Besides, the city has many costs that private businesses do not. There's Denver's $800,000 towing contract with Mirage Towing. There are high storage costs. And there's the auctioneer's fee.

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