County Proposes $125 Fee to Tow Boaters Caught in Non-Emergency Situations

Times Staff Writer

There will be no free ride for Southland boaters who depend on lifeguard rescues when they run out of fuel if a county plan to charge a fee for non-emergency boat towing is approved.

Los Angeles County would like to charge a minimum of $125 for lifeguard towing services in non-life-threatening situations such as engine failures, dead batteries, empty fuel tanks and becalmed sailboats.

"The county is going overboard," boat owner John Crowthers said at a recent public hearing held by the Small Craft Harbor Commission. If the $125 fee is approved, he said, "boating will no longer be for the average guy."

According to Ted Reed, director of the county Department of Beaches and Harbors, lifeguards would continue responding to life-threatening emergencies and surf rescues, but non-emergency calls would be referred to private towing companies.

Could Call a Lifeguard

County lifeguards have provided free boat towing from as far as five miles offshore since the 1930s, Reed said. The department has eight rescue boats operating from Ventura County to Long Beach and at Catalina Island.

Non-emergency tows within marinas and harbors are generally handled by municipal agencies or private companies, he said.

The primary mission of the rescue boats is surf rescues, Reed said, but last year about 40% of the department's 861 emergency boating calls tied up the rescue vehicles in non-life-threatening situations.

Under the new policy:

Lifeguard rescue boats would respond to all emergencies and decide jurisdiction problems later.

They would respond to non-emergency boating problems where the situation could become life-threatening. The decision on whether to render assistance would be left to the discretion of the rescue boat operator.

Lifeguards would provide disabled boaters with a list of private towing services.

Most Southern California counties and cities charge fees for non-emergency towing, Reed said. Ventura County gets $40 an hour and Orange County, $48 an hour.

Long Beach charges as much as $55 per hour. According to Reed's survey, this is the highest municipal fee in Southern California.

Reed said that the $125-per-hour fee will encourage boaters to use private companies in non-emergency situations.

"As property taxpayers, we already pay dearly for these services," said Jerry Rowley, president of the Pioneer Skippers Boat Owners Assn. He noted that owners pay county taxes on their craft and on boat slips.

Reed said he does not know how much the free towing service costs the county each year.

Commissioners at the meeting questioned the ability of commercial towing companies to adequately handle the additional business.

According to Coast Guard Lt. John Ochs, only six private towing firms in Southern California operate 24 hours a day.

Marina del Rey towboat owner Tom Bell, who went out of business last year, said he could operate his boat for $80 an hour. "But you can't have a commercial towboat in this harbor as long as the Sheriff's Department is still providing these services free of charge," he added.

Harbor Patrol Unaffected

The Harbor Patrol, operated by the county Sheriff's Department, provides free towing inside Marina del Rey and would not be governed by the county Department of Beaches and Harbors' planned fee increase.

"As far as I know, there are no plans to change our policy," Harbor Patrol Sgt. Charles Lane, said.

Another towing company, the Vessel Assist Assn. of America, will add a towboat in Marina del Rey, company president David La Montagne said.

Vessel Assist, patterned after automobile clubs, charges a $79 annual membership fee. Members receive free emergency assistance and towing anywhere along the West Coast, La Montagne said, adding that non-members pay $120 an hour for service.

Vessel Assist operates seven boats from San Diego to Seattle and subcontracts with local towing companies, La Montagne said.

A second public hearing on the $125 fee will be held at 1 p.m. Jan. 27 at the Redondo Beach Community Resource Center, 320 Knob Hill Ave.

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