Two months ago, DeKalb County commissioners adopted a law that capped the fees booting companies can charge, an effort to rein in an industry accused of predatory practices against motorists across the metro area.
But the case of the Caldwell Tree Care company that was charged $650 to free its truck from a boot in a southwest DeKalb parking lot has revealed breakdowns in the county’s launch and implementation of the new fee limitations.
DeKalb leaders now say that the owner of the tree removal company was gouged last Tuesday, and they may cite the booting business for violating the new ordinance the county commission approved Dec. 4. The new fee caps are $150 for semi-trucks and $85 for all other vehicles.
Company owner Kevin Caldwell said he places part of the blame on the DeKalb Police Department. He said the officer that responded allowed ABL Booting Company to charge the exorbitant fee.
Caldwell said his workers had to temporarily clean out their bank accounts to cobble together the money needed to get the boot removed from the parking lot that was an hour away from the company’s offices in Roswell.
“How come the beat cops didn’t do anything about this?” Caldwell said Friday. “Was it ignorance? Was it because they are friendly with these guys? Or was it because they did not get informed?”
The police department has launched an investigation of the episode, first reported by Channel 2 Action News. Police leaders last week communicated across the department of 860 officers that the fee limits are the law and should be enforced.
“While the officer was unaware of the effective date for the fee restrictions, the police department has the contact information for the parties involved in the incident,” Police Chief James Conroy said. “The police department will investigate and issue a citation if warranted.”
The owner of ABL Booting Company, Ryan Taylor, said by text message that he had not heard from DeKalb Police about the incident. He said the county’s code enforcement division told him he could continue charging the higher rates until the ordinance is fully implemented next month.
The law became effective when it was signed by CEO Mike Thurmond on Dec. 6 and states that the new caps on booting fees were immediate, Conroy said.
Thurmond and members of the county commission told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution they were unaware that the ordinance was not being enforced.
Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson voted in favor of the ordinance after hearing testimony from booting companies who said they wanted the county to create standards that allowed them to operate legally. After learning about Caldwell’s experience, she vowed to get answers.
“It’s definitely the law of the land in unincorporated DeKalb,” Johnson said. She added that if ABL didn’t think it could comply, her response would be: “Go to another jurisdiction.”
The ordinance requires booting companies to apply for licenses, and their employees must all be permitted. The new law also creates minimum standards for signage at parking lots where booting occurs and prohibits companies from paying kickbacks to lot owners.
It allowed a 90-day window for most of these changes to be implemented, and that grace period extends to early March. However, the caps on fees and requirements that boots be removed within 1 hour after they are paid went into effect immediately.
Companies found in violation of the law can be fined at least $200 for a first offense.
Caldwell said the department will ask ABL to refund money he paid above the allowed limits. If the company does not comply, it is unlikely to receive the license necessary to continue operating in DeKalb, Caldwell said.
Commissioner Nancy Jester was among the three members who voted against the ordinance, saying she preferred an all-out ban. What happened Tuesday confirmed that it is an exploitative practice and difficult to regulate, she said.
“Police are already overburdened, and now you are going to ask them on-the-fly to deal with this,” Jester said. “It would be much cleaner and crisper for us to tell them you shouldn’t boot.”