published Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

East Ridge, Tenn., wrestles with towing flap

A tow truck displays logos for both East Ridge Auto Electric and Broome's Wrecker Service.
A tow truck displays logos for both East Ridge Auto Electric and Broome's Wrecker Service.
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

For six years, East Ridge officials have let one person run two wrecker companies that both get a boost in business from the police department. This appears to be against city law.

In 2007, the East Ridge City Council passed an ordinance regulating which wrecker businesses can get calls from the police department to tow broken-down cars. As part of the ordinance, three different companies can be on the “police rotation list.” In theory, this is how the rotation works: Company A is on call the first week, Company B is on call the second week, and Company C is on call the third week. After three weeks, the rotation starts again.

According to Hamilton County business tax filings, Grover Broome owns two of three companies on the rotation: Broome’s Wrecker Service and East Ridge Auto Electric. So, for every three weeks, Broome’s companies are on the rotation two weeks.

This violates several elements of the ordinance. First, according to city rules, one person cannot own two companies on the rotation. Second, two companies on the rotation cannot be on the same property (both of Broome’s companies are listed at 4003 Ringgold Road).

And third, two different wrecker companies can’t share property, though one of Broome’s tow trucks was photographed containing the logos of both “Broome’s Wrecker Service” and “East Ridge Auto Electric.”

On Tuesday, Broome said that these laws do not apply to his companies, which opened in 1978 and 1980. He said Broome’s Wrecker Service and East Ridge Auto Electric were grandfathered in, and that the misunderstanding is all because of a clerical error.

He has a copy of the ordinance that contains this grandfather clause. But that information is not in the official version that the city keeps on file. Broome says that somehow — between the council voting on the ordinance in 2007 and now — someone took away the version with the grandfather clause and inserted another version.

Interim City Manager Freida Wheeler said her department is still looking into the issue. They have gone through meeting minutes from that time and don’t know whether Broome’s version of events is true. She began investigating after someone brought her the different ordinance. She said she doesn’t remember who it was.

These issues have come to light in the past two months because Butch Bryson, of 4330 Dupont St., wants to open a new wrecker business in East Ridge. But Bryson, who runs a similar company in Trenton, Ga., says he won’t open the business unless he knows he can get on the police rotation.

Because three companies are already on the list, Bryson asked the council to change the ordinance so that more than three companies can get on the rotation. Broome, meanwhile, said vehicles don’t break down often enough to justify expanding the wrecker rotation.

“It’s been going smooth for years and they want to come in here and change it,”he said of Bryson.

Some councilmen welcome changing the ordinance to add Bryson’s company to the rotation. Others also want to change the law — but in a different way. Councilman Larry Sewell said the city needs to alter the ordinance so that Broome can continue to own two companies on the rotation but not be in violation of East Ridge’s laws.

Sewell wants to make several changes to the ordinance. He wants to add an amendment that allows older companies — such as Broome’s — to be exempt from certain elements of the law, such as not being allowed to operate two businesses on one property.

“He’s been here for 30 years,” Sewell said. “I’m not going to tell somebody he’s got to be out of business because the ordinance wasn’t written right. … If the ordinance is the way it is written right now, he has to close something up.”

He also wants to add an amendment that restricts companies from getting on the police rotation unless those companies have operated in East Ridge for at least a year.

“If he wants to open up a shop,” Sewell said of Bryson, “open one up and then prove to us that he’s a good, established business. … But to come in and demand to be on the rotation, that ain’t going to happen.”

Mayor Brent Lambert said new companies have not earned the trust required to be on the rotation. He thinks such a company might get on the rotation and then fail to tow vehicles when needed.

Bryson can operate a wrecker company without being on the rotation. But he says he would miss out on about 10 percent of his potential business.

“That’s just like Eckerds,” he told the council on Thursday. “Their primary business is prescriptions. But they’re selling milk, white bread, candy, cosmetics, anything you can think of. I’m just wanting more business.”

Vice Mayor Jim Bethune and Councilman Marc Gravitt, on the other hand, think the council should not regulate which companies end up on this rotation. If a company has the tow trucks that city law requires, that company should be welcomed onto the rotation.

“Here’s my whole issue,” Gravitt said. “This is a restriction of free trade.”

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or at tjett@timesfreepress.com.

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