Towing wars in Buffalo alive and well

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — New rules implemented in May were supposed to broker a truce in the tow truck turf wars happening on the streets of Buffalo. But several months after those new rules kicked in, dirty competition is still king of the road.

The reforms were initiated in part as a response to the broad-daylight murder of tow truck driver Corddaryl Henley. In May, Mayor Byron Brown stated, "Curbing the alleged practice of tow truck operators racing to the scene of accidents to solicit business in a unruly manner."

So has any progress been made?

Michael Swinarski, owner of South Buffalo Auto Parts, is one of two companies on the city's authorized towing list.

"You get in fights. I worry about my guys every night," he said.

Bill O'Connell owns Riverside Towing, the other city authorized towing vendor.

He noted, "Ambulance chasing. Screaming to the scene of an accident. First come. First served. Absolutely no order as to who's going to be doing the towing on the vehicles."

O'Connell says things have not gotten any better since May, and both he and Swinarski believe there has to be a better way.

"The biggest problem is going to an accident scene and there's other people taking the cars that aren't supposed to be taking the cars," Swinarski said. "That's still happening."

O'Connell added, "There's fist fights. There's threats. There's intimidation that goes beyond. It's embarrassing."

City Parking Commissioner Kevin Helfer admits the system isn't perfect. But he believes things are better.

"I don't hear anything about fights. Do I think that there's times that happens where 911 dispatches South Buffalo or Riverside and they get there and some of the privates are there? Sure, that does happen. Do I think that happens in the majority of the cases? I don't. And I think the police handle it very well 99 times out of 100," Helfer said.

But O'Connell calls the current system out-of-date, and says it's been accepted for so long that nobody knows what to do.

"I've been at scenes myself where they've towed cars away on dragging rims. No tires.. Literally dragging the car down the street," he said.

Swinarski added, "If we were making a million dollars, yeah that would be worth fighting over. But $50? No."

City Comptroller Mark Schroeder's office recently audited the city's towing and storage program. He's recommending the city formally bid out this kind of work.

"The City of Buffalo can chose whom they want to do business with. But it really ought to be in a very fair, comprehensive way," he argued.

Schroeder is pushing for a new policy, one that requires the city to issue request for proposals when dealing with private tow companies.

"My motivation is that a proper RFP process has to take place. A proper bid process has to take place so that the City of Buffalo is not in violation of state municipal law. Period. The end. And that is what we're going to watch," Schroeder said.

Helfer is already implementing some of the comptroller's recommendations. He says the policy on city-ordered tows is clear.

"If a car is in an accident, and it's disabled and it can't be driven and it's not in a legal parking spot, only the Buffalo Police, South Buffalo or Riverside, right now during this trial period, are allowed to tow that car," he said.

But Helfer says if the car is parked in a legal spot and is not obstructing the city right-of-way, motorists have a right to choose their own tow company.

However, that policy may land the City of Buffalo in court. Jim Mazz Auto on Bailey Avenue is planning to sue.

Attorney Steven Cohen, who represents the business, said, "I am sick and tired of dealing with Kevin Helfer and his lies."

Cohen plans to file a notice of claim against Helfer because Jim Mazz Auto has been taken off of the city's rotational tow list, and, according to Cohen, has been prevented from even doing private tows.

Cohen says he's been told three or four different things about why Jim Mazz Auto has been cut out of city-ordered towing, but claims the story keeps changing.

"The only two possibilities that I see...It's either retaliation for them refusing to participate in bribes years ago or it is part of Commissioner Helfer's illegal plan to give the city a competitive advantage," Cohen argued.

The notice of claim is expected to detail allegations of constitutional and contract violations. Cohen says since about May, his client has been removed from the city's rotational tow list with no explanation.

Helfer responded, "Right now we haven't been using Jim Mazz. I'm not going to get into that with you. But I'm just telling you that right now we just haven't been using them, and that's the way it is for this time being."

Cohen claims Jim Mazz Auto has lost thousands of dollars per month since being removed from the city's tow list.

"Money has been taken out of their pockets. They've been forced to release half of their staff, and yet we have nothing. We have no indication as to why they've been taken off the list," Cohen said.

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