You’ve heard the old poker expression about the player who fails to identify the rube at the table. If you can’t spot the sucker, then it’s probably you.
That’s the way the brewing controversy over control of the lucrative local towing and auto storage business should make you feel. You’re in this game as a customer, but no matter the outcome, you’re still favored to end up scalped.
Give Bobby Ellis credit. He has worked for a couple of years to elbow his way into the sewn-up, multimillion-dollar towing business that Metro police generate. He spent a small fortune in a failed attempt to change the rules of the game at the Legislature, then wisely refocused his efforts at the county level.
Although he owns SNAP Towing, Ellis insists he doesn’t want to hook and haul the vehicles. He just wants to have the insured ones delivered to his R&S Storage yard in Henderson. He promises to give car owners and insurance companies cheaper storage rates than the ones they currently pay Ewing Bros. and Quality Towing.
That shouldn’t be too difficult. Those companies have gorged on the business like an all-you-can-eat buffet for more than a generation, and aren’t exactly known as the working man’s friend.
Then again, last time I checked, insurance companies aren’t, either. Although he’s not advertising the fact, Ellis has secured the thumbs up from the Good Hands People and the like. If approved, his plan could save them a bundle.
Not surprisingly, Sheriff Doug Gillespie says he likes things the way they are. In an April 9 letter to Clark County Commissioners, Gillespie and Nevada Highway Patrol Chief Troy Abney implored the elected officials to maintain the status quo and reject the proposed amendments under consideration.
“The proposed ordinance requires law enforcement to act as a middle man between insurance companies and tow companies,” they wrote.
From the potential for officer liability to confusion about vehicle location and costly delays in accident investigations, Gillespie and Abney conjured just about every downside imaginable. From the sound of their fretting, you would almost think breaking a decades-old towing-and-storage monopoly was inviting chaos and revolution.
Ellis argues that change is good (and certainly not bad for his bottom line.) He will enjoy the monetary benefits of the business without spending the millions others have invested in equipment. It’s brilliant in its way, but his critics say he’s simply trying to skim the cream of profits from a very tough racket.
The players can argue that they have the best interests of the public in mind, but one glance at the heavy hitters from the local legal and lobbying rackets, which make the towing business seem downright tame by comparison, gives you an idea of their inner motivation.
For his part, Ellis has hired power attorneys Jay Brown, Chris Kaempfer and James Gibson. Brown and Kaempfer have played Geppetto at the County Commission for years, and Gibson is a former Henderson mayor.
The towing bosses, meanwhile, have Billy Vassiliadis, Pete Ernaut and R&R Partners on speed dial with Kent Oram, one of Gillespie’s closest friends.
Who is looking out for you?
Sometimes I just crack myself up.
Welcome to the game, sucker. Take a seat.
Critics of the Ellis ordinance changes point to the fact his yard is more than 13 miles from Metro headquarters and as yet doesn’t have 24-hour security. Ellis, meanwhile, can point to the pile of complaints of gouging leveled by citizens and insurance-industry officials at towing operators.
“It’s completely ridiculous,” says John Churilla of Collision Appraisal Services, which works with insurance companies. “Their fees are insane. They charge for every imaginable thing they can possibly charge for.”
Towing vehicles all the way to Henderson will create a hardship for many working and poor people, but so does having cars dragged to yards where vultures circle and fees add up fast.
The County Commission is set to consider the proposed changes May 1 .
I don’t know which side will win, but I sure like their chances against you.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.