Kansas City's towing industry is a wreck.

One Tow Over the Line 

Kansas City's towing industry is a wreck.

Page 4 of 11

Bob Mohart, director of the department that oversees the tow lot's operation, defends the city's approach.

"I'm tired of criticisms from outsiders," Mohart says. "Part of the problem is that we've got three departments involved in the morass." He is referring to his own Neighborhood and Community Services Department, the city's Finance Department, and the police. "Now everybody is saying, 'Why haven't you got it fixed?' It's a convoluted mess, and we're working as fast as we can."

In October 1998, the city council adopted a resolution to investigate wreck-chasing and determine whether Kansas City should turn over operation of its tow lot to a private company. Eight months later, the Committee for Safe and Efficient Towing produced its report, recommending a consolidation of all tow-related functions and the adoption of a law to end wreck-chasing.

Two months after that, in August, City Auditor Mark Funkhouser issued a second report -- this one containing a detailed explanation of operating expenses involved with the lot.

Funkhouser's study showed how fraud, theft, and altered auction records might have cost the city $118,000 between July 1997 and January 1998. During another three-month period, a finance department employee falsified auction records for her boyfriend, resulting in a loss of revenue totaling around $12,000 (the employee no longer works for the department). The report also says that during a seven-month period ending in January 1998, 141 cars might have been picked up from the auction without being paid for and 175 to 200 missing cars were neither claimed nor auctioned. Owners who complained that they'd never been notified when their cars were about to be sold cost the city nearly $47,500 in settlement claims from the start of 1997 through May of last year.

Funkhouser's report offers an eight-point plan of attack, including relocation of the lot to a city-owned facility (to save rent money) and closer scrutiny of auction revenues and police-approved waivers of tow fees. He also recommends that the police department start paying storage fees on evidence cars that exceed time limits for holding.

If the city's track record in the tow business looks disgraceful at this point, the circumstances surrounding the release of report number three -- this one approved by the city council -- may have complicated matters even more. It was Joe Booth's turn to try to salvage things.

Gary Summerskill, the Kansas City tow lot worker and former towing company operator, says he trusts Joe Booth about as far as he can throw a truck.

Summerskill -- and plenty of Kansas City tow operators -- says Joe constructed his nationally regarded towing company with a few unethical practices of his own. And by the way, Summerskill says, he himself is who inspired a greenhorn Joe Booth to purchase his first tow truck in 1960, thus putting Joe on the path to towing immortality.

"I towed a car in to him at his station at 75th and Wyandotte, and he thought the bill was too high," Summerskill says. "Before the end of the week, he bought one too."

And Joe Booth kept buying more and more tow trucks, until he proved himself worthy of the highest honor known to the men and women who haul ass to save your ass. Booth is in the Hall of Fame ... of towing cars.

Eat your bloody heart out, Pete Rose.

Booth, 59, was inducted into the International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum on Jan. 16, 1998, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He officially became the hall's 171st honoree, joining an eight-member class that included towing greats from as far away as France (Jean Jacques Julien) and England (Michael J. Boniface). Joe was cited for his "passion for the industry" and his numerous contributions: He had consulted law enforcement and insurance agencies and raised funds for the Towing and Recovery Association of America; he had a hand in creating the national 911 emergency system; and in the '70s, Booth's Tow Service had been the largest of its kind the country.

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