Beaumont wrecker yanked from county rotation

Beaumont wrecker yanked from county rotation

There is a big difference between a “tow” and a “recovery.”

Mario Martinez, owner of Top Gun Wrecker in Beaumont will be the first to tell you that, and he’s mystified as to why after his company was chosen to recover a vehicle that belonged to the city of Port Arthur last month his company is now off the county and DPS wrecker rotation.

“I don’t understand it,” said Martinez. “I didn’t break any laws.”

Chief Deputy Zena Stephens of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office agrees.

“He’s right, he didn’t break any laws,” Stephens said.

However, Stephens and Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick agreed to have Martinez’s company dropped from the county wrecker rotation after receiving what the county calls an excessive bill.

Top Gun won a “draw” to recover a 2003 white Ford Crown Victoria that was involved in a one-car accident Saturday, Jan. 7, on Highway 73 past Englin Road.

According to Martinez, a Department of Public Safety trooper responded to the accident. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt as a member of the Port Arthur Fire Department was driving back to Port Arthur from a training session in Houston. As is customary, Martinez said three wrecker companies, including his, responded to the call for service, and the trooper draws a chip out of a hat to determine which company gets the job.

“It’s like going to the casino,” Martinez said.

After winning the draw, according to Martinez, his driver spent close to three hours at the site, using nearly all 150 feet of cable available on his truck to recover the severely damaged vehicle. Martinez pointed out that a “recovery,” which was done that day, is much more laborious and intensive than a simple tow, which generally includes pulling up behind a vehicle, hooking a couple cables to it and pulling it onto the flatbed and securing the vehicle before taking off.

After all was said and done, Martinez billed $2,950 for the work. “What it takes for everybody to do business is different,” Martinez said, “and my rates are posted.”

His rates might be posted, but the $2,950 bill to the city of Port Arthur, which was ultimately paid by the city’s insurance company, prompted the county to take action. Deputy Stephens said she and Judge Branick agreed that Top Gun’s fees were too high, and after the DPS dropped them, the county followed suit, meaning anytime a motorist is stranded in Jefferson County outside of city limits and needs to be towed – Top Gun isn’t getting a call unless they are requested by the motorist.

“We dropped them from the no-preference list, but we did not drop them completely,” Stephens said. “If someone requests them, they’ll get the call.”

Martinez has taken umbrage with the move by both the DPS and Jefferson County, saying he’s well within his rights – according to the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, which oversees and regulates wrecker services – to charge what he charges.

Martinez provided a letter from TDLR Enforcement Division Investigator Sam Lynch who conducted a formal inquiry into Top Gun’s $2,950 charge to Port Arthur for the work it did pulling the car from the grass and onto the back of its truck. Included in those charges: a $950 tow fee, $750 winching fee and $1,250 for working time. Lynch said in a letter to the Beaumont DPS office that “as Jefferson County tows are unregulated, he is free to charge any rates he deems appropriate. His charges were examined, and I have determined that those charges were within his company’s posted rates.”

Lynch added in the letter, “While the charges on the surface may appear excessive, as they were within the posted rates available, there is no violation of the Occupations Code.”

Despite the letter, Stephens said Top Gun’s prices are too high to justify keeping them on the rotation list.

“Under advisement from the county judge, we’re looking into what we consider to be unreasonable charges and although as a county we can’t regulate it, we’re looking for ways so taxpayers aren’t unreasonably charged,” Stephens said.

Stephens added the county is working on a new policy for how it will select wreckers, and early discussions involve a set maximum price that area wreckers would have to agree on before being allowed on to the county’s wrecker rotation. Provided Martinez agrees to that when the policy is updated, which Stephens predicts could be in a couple weeks, his company will be allowed back on the county’s rotation list. Until then? No dice.

“He’ll have to agree to the maximum like everyone else when we update the policy, or he’ll never be on our list,” Stephens said. Meanwhile, Martinez disagrees with the county’s notion that his prices are too high.

“My question for Ms. Stephens,” Martinez asked, “what number is she looking at?”

He also didn’t appreciate the way he was informed, insisting that he should’ve been sent a letter notifying his removal.

“She just called and said I wasn’t on the list,” Martinez said.

Fred Davis can be reached at (409) 832-1400, ext. 227, or by e-mail at fred [at] theexaminer [dot] com.