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Adrian Walker

Towing firms cleaning up

A longtime South Boston resident was headed to work one recent morning when a vehicle came charging the wrong way up her one-way street.

It wasn't a squad car or an ambulance. It was a tow truck on street cleaning day, there to scoop up any car carelessly parked in an illicit location.

"It was like they were the bomb squad," said the woman, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. Yes, retribution - from the towing companies stalking her neighborhood with their flatbed trucks.

It started out as a good idea a few months ago. The city, tired of complaints that street cleaning was lousy and getting worse, decided the only way to fix the problem was to move the cars standing between the sweepers and the curb.

But when government met free enterprise, a good idea spun out of control. Some neighborhoods are cleaner, but the big beneficiaries have been towing companies. They have collected more than $2.1 million since April - the easiest millions they may ever rake in.

What many residents have to show for the program is anxiety and aggravation.

Take Sam Ellcock, for instance.

He gets home to Roxbury from his night job at about 7 a.m. He got towed on Aug. 14 after he didn't see the street cleaning sign where he parked. He maintains it is mostly covered by a tree.

After calling a police station and two tow yards, Ellcock said, he tracked down his 1987 Mercedes at a lot in Jamaica Plain. By the time he retrieved it, he was late for his second job.

City officials insist that residents are just getting what they've long demanded - cleaner streets.

"As long as the streets are cleaned, I think people are happy," said the mayor's spokeswoman, Dot Joyce. "People will stop parking in no parking zones."

Dennis Royer, the head of Public Works and Transportation, said the towing is heaviest in South Boston and Roslindale, which he attributed to more posted streets and fewer legal places to park on street cleaning days. He said the amount of towing, which can easily top 200 cars per day, is getting lighter as residents get used to enforcement of the regulations.

Tow drivers aren't the only ones cashing in. Before a car is lifted, the Boston Police Department has to confirm that the car is not a law enforcement vehicle, or reported stolen, or being sought as part of an investigation.

So teams of BPD employees, working overtime, staff four phone lines to facilitate the towing program. I'm sure there's nothing more important they could possibly be doing.

Given the windfall for towing companies, I asked Royer why the city didn't just tow the cars itself. The Boston Transportation Department has some tow trucks, after all, and $2 million would buy plenty more.

He said the matter is under consideration.

"We'll have to go back and reassess whether it is in the city's best interest to control the process or continue to rely on contractors."

Royer said complaints from residents are down, but still coming in. "The complaints are never going to stop," he said. "As I've told people a million times, I wish we didn't have to tow a single car."

City Councilor Michael Flaherty, whose South Boston neighborhood sees more than its share of towing, might be the program's strongest critic.

"With the city's current street cleaning policy, tow companies are collecting millions on the backs of working families," Flaherty said, adding that the city "must now take responsibility to establish a program that keeps our streets clean while protecting residents' wallets." That doesn't sound like all that hard a balance to strike.

Everyone wants a clean city, but Boston was cleaned for years without sticking up residents. If the city had to pay for towing 20,000 cars, it might approach street cleaning a lot differently.

But it's just our money. And to hear City Hall tell it, residents couldn't be more pleased.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com.

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