Friday, May 30, 2008

Marshals bounced from towing program

Constables will verify car ownership as city revamps procedures, policies

By Elizabeth Benton
Register Staff
— State marshals have been booted from the city’s towing program and replaced by four city-appointed constables, Tax Collector C.J. Cuticello announced Thursday at an aldermanic workshop probing towing procedures.
State marshals’ work for the city came under scrutiny last month following allegations that marshals Peter Criscuolo and Michael DeAngelis, Cuticello and the politically influential Rev. Boise Kimber were involved in calling off tows for politically connected scofflaws.
City Hall has since revamped its towing procedures, contracting with Georgia-based VioAlert to boot cars rather than tow in cases where over $200 in parking tickets is owed.
The city has also retrained tow operators and retooled policies for contesting parking tickets and making payments.
“The goal is to clarify rules and procedures, to reduce the cost to residents,” said Chief Administrative Officer Rob Smuts.
“We wanted to make sure we had a fair and consistent set of rules. We wanted to look at ways of making it less expensive for somebody caught up in it. We reduced the role of marshals and made it more convenient,” said Smuts.
Cuticello said the city is hoping to gradually eliminate the need for towing. “We’re moving toward 100 percent VioAlert,” he said.
The fee to retrieve a towed car is $95, versus $55 for a booted car.
But tow companies have not relinquished their role in city collections without a fight.
“My clients are local companies, they pay taxes… You shouldn’t be surprised there is a certain amount of resentment some outfit from Georgia has been hired to do the booting,” said Robert G. Oliver, a former alderman and attorney for the municipal towers.
“They bought their own boots because they were required to, then they were simply not called upon. We have some concerns about that,” Oliver said.
As the city revamps its towing program, towers themselves aren’t the only ones seeing changes.
On Tuesday, the city halted use of state marshals to verify cars belonging to tax and parking ticket scofflaws, a duty that will now fall to constables. Prior to the change, three marshals worked on the program.
The four constables include Controller Mark Pietrosimone and members of the tax office staff. They will not be paid above their current salary, said Cuticello.
The change “eliminates the added expense from marshals,” he said.
Records show embattled state marshal Peter Criscuolo earned $21,240 last year from his role in the towing program. Earnings for additional marshals involved in the towing program were unavailable late Thursday.
State marshals continue to serve legal papers, including foreclosure notices for the city, and Alderman Robert Lee, D-11, called on both Criscuolo and state marshal and Democratic Town Committee Chairwoman Susan Voigt to step aside.
Lee objected to Voigt’s work for the city, claiming a conflict of interest with her town committee role.
Lee also pushed city officials present Thursday to agree to a “zero tolerance policy” regarding staff found not in adherence to towing practices. In a letter to Mayor John DeStefano Jr. distributed at the hearing, Lee also called on DeStefano to “deliver a written warning” to Cuticello, placing him on probation for one to three years, alerting him to possible termination if he does not follow procedure.
Smuts questioned the wisdom of such a policy, and said, “We’d have a problem with the union.” However, he said the city would “take a strong stance making sure the policies are implemented.”
Elizabeth Benton can be reached at 789-5714 or

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