The Dec. 11 blizzard made a mess of St. Paul streets, and after attending a party near West 7th. St., Emily Hemauer didn't dare drive home to Mounds View. So she took a chance and parked her car at a closed gas station for the night.
The next morning, the 2002 Toyota Highlander she had borrowed from her parents was gone from its spot. Hemauer called the number on a sign that said unauthorized cars would be towed. The good news: Her car was only a mile away. The bad news: It would cost her $372.88 in cash to get it back.
"My heart dropped," said Hemauer, 22, a computer science student who works as a waitress. She admits she shouldn't have parked at the gas station, but Hemauer said the fee charged by Budget Towing is "ridiculous."
Last month's snow blitz created the usual scenes of misery at public impound lots in Minneapolis and St. Paul. But those whose cars were towed from apartment and business parking lots discovered that the rules are different for private versus public towing. Whistleblower heard gripes from apartment dwellers who said their property managers didn't tell them the plows and tow trucks were on the way.
But the real sting came when they had to pay to get their cars out of sometimes distant lots. In Minneapolis, people pay a flat city-imposed rate for cars towed from private property -- $207 for the tow, $27 per day for storage. But in St. Paul, the amount depends on who tows your vehicle.
For towing and one day's storage, the prices in St. Paul range from about $250 (Auto Rescue Inc. of Little Canada) to the $372 charged by Budget Towing Inc. of St. Paul, according to price lists filed with the city of St. Paul.
Roy Carlson of Budget Towing admitted his price is high, but he said it reflects rising fuel charges and property taxes, plus the cost of running a 24-7 operation that takes care not to damage cars in transit. With 39 years in the business, Carlson described himself as the "godfather" of St. Paul's towing businesses.
Here's how his fees break down: $250 for the tow, a $50 administrative fee that covers certified mail and clerical costs, $50 daily storage charge and taxes, he said. A voluntary tow costs about a third of that, he said.
"It's reflecting the cost of what it is to do business," Carlson said. "If you don't want to pay, don't park there."
The sometimes predatory practices of private-property towing have led many cities to decide they can't leave this business entirely up to the market. Both Minneapolis and St. Paul require companies to get a license to do it, and any unlicensed company that does an involuntary tow can face fines or other action.
St. Paul requires the six licensed companies to file their price lists, but Minneapolis goes a step further. In 2008, the city commissioned a study that determined it was more expensive to have your car towed in Minneapolis than comparably sized cities such as Buffalo, Toledo and Cincinnati. Even New York City was cheaper.
"People making what could be a simple mistake were being forced to pay fees that were totally unregulated," said Grant Wilson, Minneapolis' business licensing manager.
At first, the city considered limiting the cost of a private tow to the price charged for retrieving a towed vehicle from the city impound lot -- currently $156. After towing companies objected, the council agreed to set the price at 150 percent of the city's fees. That cap doesn't apply to involuntary tows from the suburbs, many of which are handled by the same companies.
Mark Anderson, owner of Wrecker Services Inc., said he charges a flat $50 above the city's fees for impound towing from the suburbs. So far, all four towing companies that did private property impound towing before the city's price cap are still providing the service, but Anderson said that doesn't mean operators like price controls.
"I never thought we were gouging before the gap," Anderson said. If people think Wrecker Services is making a killing, "write me a check for the place," he said.
If people are griping about the higher costs of towing in St. Paul, those complaints aren't reaching the city, according to St. Paul licensing spokeswoman Angie Wiese, who said there were only four complaints about towing companies last winter.
Still, Emily Hemauer's father, Jeff, said he still doesn't believe the price for getting the family's car back was fair. He understands that he was going to have to pay a big bill when he went to the Budget Towing lot Dec. 12, but his frustration was shared by other motorists in line to reclaim their cars.
"There were a lot of sad faces in there peeling out greenbacks," Jeff Hemauer said.