Tow Truck Trust: Ernie’s Monopoly

The meeting room was stuffy on June 24th 2009 as three university officials watched Ernie’s president Frank Fournier scribbled in cursive. He finished writing his signature and it was official, Ernie’s Towing was to become the sole towing company of UMass Amherst for the next three years.

Michael Brennan, UMass Parking Manager, Sandy Anderson, Director of Campus Service, and John Martin, Director of Procurement, all authorized the marriage of Ernie’s Towing and the university. The agreement between the university and Ernie’s Towing was reached on July 24, 2009. The contract spans from August 1, 2009 to June 30, 2012.

However, the specifications of the contract say, “In addition, if all parties are in agreement, the contract may be extended for two additional one-year periods with all terms and conditions to remain the same”. So as a result, Ernie’s Towing will remain the sole towing company of the university until at least June 2013.

Ernie’s was not simply handed the towing privilege, it had to outbid at least five other towing companies for the job to represent UMass Amherst in towing services.

Edward Blaguszewski, UMass spokesman, said: “University bids out towing services. As with all contracts at the university, there is a public bidding process. Our procurement office develops the specifications in conjunction with parking services, which manages towing”.

“One of the biggest reasons they got the bid was because they were only going to charge $75 for a tow and then $30 dollars for the next 24 hours. All of the other bidders went right to 105 dollars and then tacked on an additional 30,” said Blaguszewski.

They price of towing in the state of Massachusetts is regulated by the state. You can charge zero dollars up to $110 a tow in the state of Massachusetts according to Department of Telecommunications and Energy (DTE) regulations.

According to the contract, the bid evaluation criteria include distance of towing company’s storage facility from UMass, response time for university towing calls, available hours of operation, quantity and quality of towing equipment, as well as the cost of towing and storage.

As part of the contract, Ernie’s is required to have Bodily Injury Liability Insurance with no less than $500,000 for each person. The insurance covers Ernie’s in the case that they cause an accident and harm someone else, and it covers medical costs of the injured.

Generally speaking, Ernie’s Towing has fulfilled the campus expectations of the university since it became the lone towing company of UMass Amherst in 2009.

However, that is not to say they have been flawless. There was a large miscue in campus towing on Labor Day weekend this year, move in weekend, in the North residential parking lot 44.

In the incident, Ernie’s towed more than 180 illegally parked cars from lot 44 during move in weekend. Ernie’s ushered them to its Amherst facility and to another, larger, car compound storage facility. Students, employees, and families all had to pay the fee of $105 to get their cars back.

Junior Paul Pettine, who was involved in the Labor Day towing incident, doesn’t blame Ernie’s Towing: “They [Ernie’s] were just doing their job, I couldn’t really get mad at them. I was angrier at parking services for telling me I could park my car there [Lot 44] when obviously I couldn’t.

Not everyone saw Ernie’s Towing in the same light as Pettine did. Nick Lyons, who was also involved in the Labor Day towing incident, said the Ernie’s service was horrible: “It literally took me two hours to get my car back. It wasn’t even on site. I understand they were busy but I mean come on, 2 hours? That’s just ridiculous”.

“Angry reactions are going to happen when 180 cars are towed and students are being charged upwards of a hundred bucks for it. The tow company can be as great as possible but the mere fact that their cars are being towed is going to make people’s blood boil,” said Blaguszewski.

Blaguszewski admitted that the North towing complication was the university’s fault and that Ernie’s merely “did what they were asked to do” and that it was a “mistake that shouldn’t have happened”.

All cars towed part of the incident had their parking fine waived and were reimbursed for the towing charge.

These people were lucky to escape such towing fines. Statistics show that parking violators are learning their lesson.  According to the contract, towing numbers have been declining since 2005. From the period of July 1, 2005 to June 30, 2006, 2,189 tows were made. July 1, 2006 to June 30, 2007 saw 2,028 cars towed while July 1, 2007 to June 30, 2008 had nearly 1,000 less tows than the previous year, with only 1,053.

Michael Brennan, UMass Parking Manager, has been proud of the constant descent of towing numbers for the campus: “We are now down to maybe 700 [tows], I think last year we towed a little over 700 cars. We are probably on track to do 700 again this year”.

Parking services works in conjunction with Ernie’s Towing.  Brennan claims that parking services often gets blame for escalated permit prices and towing fines.

“We don’t make one cent off of towing or citations. The money goes into a financial aid scholarship fund, which goes back to students,” said Brennan.

Parking services makes its money off of permits, visitor fees, and an assessment. The assessment is a costing model, meaning everyone pays his or her fair share, “The parking model here is based on how much revenue you collect, and how much you put back into the system to fix it up,” said Brennan.

A collective bargaining agreement is in place with all employee unions at UMass Amherst. The model is salary based, so every time someone receives a raise, the parking permit fees go up. So students aren’t the only ones who the price for parking permits.

With higher prices on permits, people are more apt to violating parking requirements. This is where Ernie’s comes to the university’s aid.

Ernie’s has fourteen different tow trucks including six self loaders, four two car flatbeds, one flatbed, one service van, one service truck, and one wrecker. It has twenty-two employees.

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