Jillian Randel thought her car was stolen Thursday morning when she noticed it had disappeared from its usual space outside her Union Street apartment.
That was an unlikely explanation in the upstanding city of Concord, she thought, but what else? She’s been parking on the street for two years – snowstorm or not – without any consequences, she said.
That changed Thursday, when her car was towed along with 48 others in violation of the city’s overnight winter parking ban.
Randel, 29, said she learned at the police station that her car was waiting 2½ miles away at Patsy’s Auto Body and Alignment. She was on her own to get there, she was told.
So Randel, in her wool coat, and her dog, in his orange vest, began walking to the Basin Street lot.
About halfway there, the sidewalks became impassable, so she and Easton, an 8-year-old Catahoula rescue, moved into the street. They were promptly sprayed with slush by a passing tractor trailer, she said.
After about 50 minutes, she arrived at the lot, put the $120 fee on her credit card and removed the city’s $100 ticket from under her windshield wiper. She was reunited with her car, but late for her first job.
Throughout the process, no one had informed her that she could sign up for winter parking ban alerts on her phone, or that she could park her car for free in a city garage when the emergency bans are called.
“It was just a bad experience,” she said. “It makes me feel like I’m not part of the community. Like, I get it, you towed my car, but help me figure out how to get it, or take more preventative measures and let people know you’re going to change how things have always been done.”Communication and fees
For those who knew where to look, the ban was widely communicated. Before 11 a.m. Wednesday, the blast went out: the city website, multiple departments’ Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and an email list for this specific purpose.
It was the fourth day in a row that at least part of the city was subject to an overnight parking ban, said Dave Florence, the supervisor of the police department’s parking division. In his 16th winter working for the city, Florence said he couldn’t remember such a streak.
Yet the owners of 49 cars didn’t get the message, or flouted the law. At least one of those people owned a car that was among the 22 towed just three days earlier, Florence said.
The General Services Department coordinates with police to remove cars in violation of the ban that are interrupting plowing. The city cycles through a list of five towing companies – John’s Wrecker Service, Above All Collision Center, BRC Towing, Key Towing and Patsy’s – who have all agreed to the same cost structure, Florence said.
Under certain circumstances, the $120 fee can increase. It’s a $60 “gate fee” to retrieve a car after the business closes, and the tow company can charge for storage, too.
The first 24 hours of storage is free, Florence said, but drivers can be charged $50 a day – and $50 retroactively for the first day if the car stays more than 24 hours. In other words, for a car towed early Thursday morning, the owner can be charged a total of $280 “after hours” the same day or $320 the following morning, including the city’s fine.
If the $100 city fine isn’t paid within two weeks, it doubles to $200. Two weeks more and it doubles to $400. At least one person accepted a five-month payment plan Thursday that the city offers without any interest, Florence said.
There’s also an appeals process at the district court. “I’ve seen everything at the court from putting the ticket on file to somebody who spent a couple of nights in jail,” Florence said.‘We try not to tow’
By towing 72 cars in four days, the city tallied at least $7,200 in revenue. But Florence said officers make every reasonable effort to avoid towing, searching for drivers when possible to inform them what’s going on.
He said, for instance, that the downtown-only parking bans on Tuesday and Wednesday required only one car to be towed. An officer even ventured into The Draft, a sports bar, and tracked down one driver who was illegally parked.
“We do try to see if we can make contact if we have a phone number for the registered owner in house,” he said.
In neighborhoods, police officers use the lights on their cruisers to make themselves known.
“I’ve had neighbors come out and say, ‘Oh, that belongs to so and so,’ and then call them and say, ‘Hey come out and move your car,’ ” Florence said. “We would certainly rather have someone just move their car.”
Those efforts could help explain why the total number of cars towed in Concord pale next to some other cities. Florence said the average citywide ban results in 25 to 35 cars towed. By comparison, during two storms in December – notably smaller than the nor’easters this week – the city of Manchester towed 395 cars, the Union Leader reported.
“We don’t want to be Manchester,” City Manager Tom Aspell said at the city council meeting this week. “We want to be Concord, which means we try not to tow unless we absolutely have to.”‘Not helpful’
None of those efforts got to Randel, however. She said she would have happily brought her car to a nearby garage if she’d known there was a ban on her street.
And even after she was required to go to the police station to find out where her car was towed, she didn’t learn much more about the program. The clerk said she sympathized with people who only have on-street parking, Randel said, but “wasn’t helpful.”
“You’re sitting here saying you feel bad for people who only have on-street parking. You’d think if you were trying to be helpful, you’d say, ‘Call this number to sign up for alerts or go to this website,’ ” she said.
Instead, Randel said, she left on her 2.5-mile trek without learning about how she could have avoided that fate.
“I’m sitting here being polite. This has never happened before. I’m clearly upset because it’s going to cost me a lot of money I don’t have, and I don’t know how to get my car,” she recalled. “I love Concord. It’s a community I’ve chosen to live in, but when stuff like this happens, it doesn’t feel like a good, positive community.”