Snow job

Snow job

Is a Friday night the best time to tow cars and remove snow with inadequate warning?

BRATTLEBORO — For a town in Vermont, a state that gets more annual snowfall than any other in the nation, you would think Brattleboro would have snow-clearing down to a science. Or at least an art.

It doesn't - and that needs to change.

Just over a week ago, those gathering downtown on a crisp Friday night found this out the hard way as they emerged from local restaurants and watering holes to find their cars snatched from the streets without a trace.

One of those people was me.

It was a clear evening, the stars were out, and the streets largely free of snow. I had stopped off at a restaurant to toast a friend's promotion. We parked on Elliot Street, and when we left about an hour later, my truck was gone.

There was no ticket, no sign, no nothing. I thought my vehicle had been stolen.

It was around midnight. I'd legally parked shortly before 11 p.m., driving into town from Exit 2 off Route 91 via Union Street.

After about 30 minutes of frantically trying to learn if someone had seen anybody walk off with my truck, I saw Adam Belville, a police officer patrolling Elliot Street. He said my car had been towed to West Brattleboro and asked if I would like the number of the tow company.

I have never been towed before and was very surprised to learn the police had taken my vehicle without a single sign or warning on Elliot Street. Officer Belville had no explanation for this other than “We don't have the time to put up signs” and that it was easier to tow the cars when it's time to clear snow off the streets.

(Later that evening, I learned that the cops had popped into some of the restaurants and bars to warn people they were about to tow all vehicles parked downtown, but this hardly seems like a precaution destined to work on a weekend night when people are socializing, when loud music is playing, and when alcohol is being served.)

I was dressed in a skirt for dinner and the temperature had dropped to subzero. As I had no vehicle - and it was quite late - I asked to be taken home.

Officer Belville said it would be up to me to find a different way home and to pay for my cab, a police ticket, and the towing - hundreds of dollars.

(I literally thought to myself, “Do I look cold enough for this cop to drive me home?” Apparently not.)

A close friend, whom I awoke from a sound sleep, came downtown to get me. As we pulled out, we saw people pleading in the streets with a tow-truck operator to not tow them. One man was forced to cough up $75 for the privilege of getting his own property back.

* * *

I have lived in Brattleboro only for a few years, and some of what this town does is still new to me. But for a municipality that gets around 80 inches of snowfall annually, I am pretty sure this is not a safe or good practice.

As someone who owns a home here and lives here by choice, the spectacle was pitiful. In the wake of Tropical Storm Irene and the Brooks House fire, this is not what our newly revitalized downtown or community needs when we should be helping one another to prosper.

We can and should do better, particularly when many people are visiting us in the wintertime - in my opinion, one of the best seasons for Brattleboro to roll out the red carpet and really shine.

When I got home, I called Brattleboro police headquarters to ask for my car to be released from the tow yard, as I did not think there was any justification for seizing vehicles without notice or signage and asking residents to pay.

I was told this was too bad, as there were signs up on Main Street - where I had not driven.

The next day, I met at the police station with Lt. Robert Kirkpatrick, who acknowledged the lack of signage and told me driver outrage is a recurring problem whenever cars are towed for snow clearing.

I have a suggestion: How about putting up some signs and giving people a little notice?

* * *

Some facts: Getting towed in Brattleboro costs a cool $150 - and that doesn't count the cab fare, plus the $20 ticket for parking in a “this just became a tow area” area. If you do not pay the tow company immediately, you're charged an extra $50 a day for storage.

So, how does that fee stack up against places like Burlington and Boston? In Burlington, a tow costs $57.50 and you pay $15 a day for storage. In Boston, tows amount to $90 and $35 for storage. And that's the max for each.

(Note: Burlington and Boston have strict regulations that limit how much tow companies can charge you. Brattleboro has zero rules to protect people from being gouged - remember the guy forced to pay $75 to drive his own car home? That is just ugly.)

As a postscript, the tow company that took my car called me the next day with requests to come with “$150 cash as soon as possible,” because they needed to leave town and my hesitance was inconvenient. (Brattleboro rotates among a number of tow companies, according to the police department, so each time it is one tow company's turn, they have incentive to be very aggressive about cashing in.)

Brattleboro has a median income of around $30,000 a year before taxes. This is a property-tax month - and a water-bill month to boot - in a town where quarterly property taxes are more than your mortgage, and the fine print on your bill reminds you that the town will charge you 8 percent for missing its deadline. (Most hedge funds on Wall Street would love to earn 8 percent a year, by the way.)

In recent weeks, Brattleboro has towed more cars than it has all winter - notably, around a dozen on weekend days or weekend nights, according to a public records request filed with the police department.

Late at night on the weekends, when people are patronizing our downtown, is the least efficient time to clean the main streets. But we can all agree it is a great time to write tickets and rack up tow bills when residents' guards are down.

Brattleboro's Department of Public Works, which decides when it's time to clear the roads of snow and tells the police department to arrange the tows, confirmed to The Commons that it puts up only four warning signs in all, yet it tows cars on twice as many streets.

* * *

When these actions are sanctioned by the local government, it shows a real callousness toward the people living in and visiting our town - one of the slowest-growing towns in Vermont, another trend we need to change. Our residents and visitors are hard-working people, not human ATMs.

The obvious solution: Brattleboro needs to fully reimburse anyone towed or ticketed on a street that is not clearly marked, because while the town may have ordinances stating it can do this, these actions show a disdain for our vibrant community - and they destroy the public trust.

Cities large and small do not do this. We should not do this, either.

We are a community. We need to be invested in our collective success to not just survive, but to thrive.

And to show that, for me, it's about the principle and not about the money, I will donate my $150 - if the town decides to reimburse me - to this newspaper.

Your move, Brattleboro.

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