Abating Mendo’s Wrecks (May 14, 2003)

Mendocino County budgets $60,000 a year to get abandoned cars permanently put away. According to people who perform this valuable public service, Mendocino County gets off cheap. Since fiscal year 1997 Mendocino County has contracted with Mason Cook, the controversial Willits tow truck operator, to rid our landscape of automotive detritus. 

Before 1997, abandoned vehicles were towed by garages based in the various areas of vast Mendoland. They were Triple-A franchise holders, mostly, who frequently found themselves towing vehicles whose owners never appeared to claim them. But in 1997 Mason Cook got the tow contract for the entire county by underbidding the regional outfits, including Starr Automotive of Philo. 

Mr. Cook's winning bid was $55 per “basic tow.” He is also paid if he provides additional services above and beyond hookin' 'em up and drivin' 'em off. If the two truck driver has to remove particularly foul or even noxious trash from the towed vehicle, or if he finds himself with a “difficult tow” involving “long winch times,” or if he's got to tow larger vehicles or trailers, Mr. Cook is paid for the extra effort involved. But even with these occasional add-ons, Mr. Cook's contract price is a bargain for local taxpayers.  

It's almost too good a bargain.

With gas hovering permanently, it seems, at $2 a gallon or more and tow trucks burning it up at 8-to-10 miles per gallon, and tow truck drivers costing $8-$10 per hour, the minimum cost of a basic tow picking up a car on the Mendocino Coast from Willits and back, can run to well over $100; factor in extras, and we're talking charity tows.

And tows from anywhere on the Mendocino Coast with the truck driving from Willits and back again with the vehicle, and the task is frequently an all-day one. There are plenty of frustrating occasions when two trucks arrive at a location far from Willits only to find nothing — no car, no tow. Or someone claiming to be the owner suddenly appears to dispute the tow, which drivers are told to accept without argument. No wreck to salvage, no bill to the county, no $55.

When abandoned wrecks are brought back to Cook’s Willits or Ukiah lots, they’re held for 15 days to give registered owners one last chance to claim them. If they’re not claimed, they’re “462’d”, Department of Motor Vehicles code for authority to salvage or crush them.

Until late last year, Mr. Cook turned his 462 vehicles over to Wayne Hunt’s Ukiah Auto Dismantlers wrecking yards in Willits or Ukiah. But, according to Hunt, Cook refused to pay on of his standard monthly $2,500 salvage bills and an additional $1,900 bill for parts Mr. Cook had ordered. Because of these non-payments and other disputes over the disposition of individual cars, Mr. Hunt ceased accepting Mr. Cook's 462's. 

In the state where there are two vehicles per person, it is not surprising that abandoned cars continued to accumulate everywhere in Mendocino County. Mr. Cook had to go on towing them, but he needed another place to put them.

So Mr. Cook temporarily leased property from Jerry Ward of Solid Waste of Willits for what was supposed to be three months ending April 18th. Meanwhile, Mr. Cook informed the City of Willits that he wanted to convert a 250 by 250-foot lot on Shell Lane southeast of the Willits Safeway to a full-fledged wrecking yard. Mr. Cook intends to lease the parcel from Willits businessman Bob Peters so he can do his own wrecking and salvage work without depending on his Ukiah creditor and nemesis, Wayne Hunt. 

But the use permit application for Shell Lane has yet to be submitted to the City of Willits, and Mr. Cook's hoped-for lease agreement for Mr. Peters' Willits property has not been signed because Peters wants Cook to make some improvements on the property; Mr. Peters also wants Mr. Cook to post a hefty bond to protect Mr. Peters against toxic wrecks if they should be abandoned yet again. (Willits residents are famously on perpetual red alert for the negative consequences of industrial civilization, real and imagined. The City of Willits has presented Mr. Cook with a list of conditions he has to meet before Willits will process his use permit application.)

The hapless Mr. Cook, faced with ever more abandoned vehicles but no place to put them, hired a mobile crusher out of Red Bluff to come over to the three-month temporary lot Mr. Cook had arranged with the beneficent Jerry Ward to crush some to the vehicles piled up there, but when the Red Bluff crushers found out that Mr. Cook didn’t have a state dismantler’s license, and wasn’t certifying the cars as having had all their noisome fluids and prohibited materials removed, Red Bluff refused to come back for another round of car crushing. 

By late April, upwards of 200 abandoned cars had accumulated at the short-term lot Mr. Cook was leasing from Ward — a lot which also happens to be in the viewshed of at least two Willits City Councilpersons. On April 25th, after the City of Willits had fired off several warnings to Mr. Cook that he couldn’t keep accumulating cars at Jerry Ward's short term lot, the City of Willits took the drastic step of issuing Mr. Ward and Mr. Cook a Cease and Desist Nuisance Abatement Notice. (No official mention was made of the presumed daily aesthetic affronts to the two councilpersons.)

Willits Senior Planner Alan Falleri subsequently informed the Willits City Council that Mr. Cook and his benefactor, Mr. Ward, had been ordered to clear Ward's lot of its neatly arrayed but unsightly and unallowed vehicles. Greater Willits then got full-face visuals of the 200 rusting wrecks via its community access cable television channel. The Willits City Council then voted unanimously for the already issued abatement notice. Mr. Ward and Mr. Cook were directed to “abate the nuisance” at Mr. Ward’s property by May 10th, last Saturday.

Mr. Ward and Mr. Cook must have felt like they were in a destruction derby on bicycles. They were getting hit from every direction. But neither gentleman had fallen off a turnip truck the day before. Mr. Cook has successfully maintained a for-profit business for many years, and Mr. Ward has similarly survived the usual hazards of free enterprise plus certain tax-funded attempts to subvert him by a sitting supervisor and that supervisor's little buddy, an unindicted car bomber and airport arsonist.

“We were trying to be flexible with Mr. Cook,” Willits Planner Alan Falleri said last week, “but when he started crushing them here lately, that was the last straw. When I found out what he was really doing I convened a meeting of our technical committee and we discussed the zoning and decided that this is not an impound yard, it’s a wrecking yard — full of wrecked, abandoned vehicles which more closely fits the definition of a wrecking yard.” Falleri told Mr. Cook that he had to have a use permit to crush or otherwise dismantle vehicles at the Ward property. 

“I didn’t see any threat to any environmental resources,” added Falleri. “It’s a pretty clean operation — even with a crusher. But I’m not giving him any more time. He’s got to have a use permit to do that kind of thing.” 

Falleri also noted that the situation has taken on “a higher political profile” — meaning the Willits City Council is taking an interest in how the situation is handled. “You can only look the other way so long,” said the exasperated Falleri. 

Mr. Cook, who seems to be the Micawber of NorCal's abandoned car business, jauntily declared last Friday that “there is no problem” at his Willits site owned by Mr. Ward. Cook, however, declined to elaborate, remarking that he didn’t want to contribute to another “slanted” article about him. Assured that the Boonville newspaper didn't think the DA’s recent felony false imprisonment charges against him were justified by the facts of the case, and that the recent cease and desist notice from the City of Willits seemed high-handed and even premature given Mr. Cook's short-time deal with Mr. Ward to remove the cars anyway, Mr. Cook went on to repeat that “there is no problem.” In fact, his wrecks were on the way to Lake County. (A rock and cement recycling operation called Interra, closed for the winter, has an existing right to the Ward property.) Mr. Cook was on his way out the door as the City of Willits moved on him because they falsely assumed he would have to be thrown off the property.) 

Mr. Cook had mobilized his entire fleet of tow trucks and flatbeds and hauled his junkers to the “Last Mile” wrecking yard in Lake County. 

But Mr. Cook is still in the difficult position of having to continue taking wrecks off Mendocino County roads at bargain rates and hauling them, at additional cost, to Lake County while he goes through the costly and time-consuming process of setting up a wrecking yard at Mr. Peters’ cramped Shell Lane property near the Willits Safeway.

Getting a wrecking yard going in California these days is no simple task. People seem to think their automobiles vanish when they die. Hunt’s auto dismantler operation on deep North State in Ukiah is a grandfathered business, meaning it became legal long after it began life as the legendary Alex Tsarnas's wrecking yard years ago. Mr. Hunt also inherited a homeless camp from Tsarnas that the magnanimous Hunt, with the County breathing fire blasts of threats to get those people out of there, and Ukiah's homeless advocates as usual viewing the scene with alarm but offering no practical help, and the Savings Bank of Mendocino, the property's note holder, as always putting usury before people demanding that the human wrecks be cleared even if it was mid-winter, Mr. Hunt bought some time for his dependents, helping them to find new shelter approved by local government.

New wrecking yards like the one Mr. Cook has in mind must conform to a phone book-thick collection of federal, state and city rules. A grading and drainage plan has to be devised before the City of Willits will consider a permit. A complex storm water protection plan must be submitted to the State Water Board complete with details on how each potential pollutant — oil, fluids, batteries, freon, gasoline, tires, and the rest of a modern vehicle's innards— will be handled and monitored on site and how spills will be contained if any of these substances happens to hit the ground. The county’s Environmental Health Department has to sign off as well. In addition, the Department of Motor Vehicles requires wrecking yards to have Dismantlers Licenses which, among other things, must be accompanied by $700 and proof that a storm water protection plan has been submitted to the Regional Water Board. City and Water Board approvals also require public hearings sure to have Willits-area hill muffins descending in droves on permit meetings from their old growth redwood aeries to advise the would be proprietor and the rest of flatland Willits how to walk lightly on the earth. 

“It’s a cumbersome process, no doubt about it,” admitted planner Falleri, adding that Mr. Cook’s anti-government regulation reputation may make it even more difficult. “I had heard that Mr. Cook doesn’t like government regulation before I came up to Willits,” said Falleri, a former county planner. “And now I’m starting to become a believer.”

(It's not government regulation so much as it's the arbitrary way regulation is enforced, especially in Mendocino County. The regulators often forget that there are lots of them in relation to the typical small local business, and all of them get their fat, benefit stuffed checks whether or not they do their work right. Or do it at all, in some cases. The Department of Environmental Health is famous for cracking down on some people from the rules while giving others a free pass.)

Mr. Falleri added that Willits City staffers — the water and sewer director, the fire chief, and even the police chief — have reviewed Cook’s initial application and given him the conditions he has to meet — basic safety and environmental requirements. 

“Mr. Cook thinks the drainage and grading plan is a little onerous,” said Falleri, “but we have to have that to protect ground water and surface water and prevent pollution. … I know he’s working on it and wants to proceed, and it looks doable from a planning standpoint — if he complies with the conditions.”

Falleri added that the earliest time he expects to see a full permit application from Cook that’s ready for presentation to the city council is July. After that will come more months of review by the city, as well as the Water Board and the Department of Motor Vehicles. Realistically, an operation the size of the one proposed by Mr. Cook, should be reviewed in half a day. There's no incentive for public agencies to do anything with alacrity because they all get paid no matter how long their approvals take. And given the cozy relationship this county's bureaucrats enjoy with their elected supervisors, well, if you think Third World timelines you're thinking realistically. We have very few elected officials or public sector employees who have ever had to compete in the capitalist jungle. They literally have no idea of what it's like and the number of plates that must be spun simultaneously.)

Besides being bureaucratically cumbersome to start up, modern wrecking yards are expensive to equip. Not only is there the expense of crushing machines, loaders, concrete pads, support buildings, and containment and monitoring systems, there’s a good chance that the state will soon start requiring that new wrecking operations be conducted in closed buildings to make sure the hazards are fully contained and accounted for.

Jim McCleary, the county’s Abandoned Vehicle Abatement contract administrator, says that the contract will go out for bid again sometime next year. When it does, it’ll be hard-to-impossible for Mason Cook to maintain his $55/basic tow rate given all the unplanned costs and expenses he’s presently incurring as he tries to provide an absolutely vital service. 

Of course some of the costs can be offset by sales of salvaged parts and scrap metal, but they're subject to the vagaries of the parts and scrap metal markets, themselves subject to the vagaries of international politics. 

“Mason Cook thinks there’s big money in abandoned vehicles,” says Wayne Hunt who’s been in the junk business for years. “Well, to be blunt, there’s not.” 

Since it looks like Cook will be forced to raise his per vehicle tow bid for 2004, other local towing and wrecking operations will also have an opportunity to bid the work. McCleary said that bidders aren't required to bid on the entire county — regional short-hop towing would be the only way to reduce the individual tow costs to something approaching Cook’s present rates. But how the County would handle separate regional bids if Cook bids for the entire county again next year is not clear. 

In the pre-Mason Cook days, Alex Tsarnas, former owner of Ukiah Auto Dismantlers, and other regional towing companies in Fort Bragg, Philo and Laytonville, had informal agreements not to stray from their home areas, but the entire county was covered. 

If Mr. Cook doesn’t get all the county’s abandoned vehicles, it will be that much harder for him to recoup his investment in the new wrecking yard he’s trying to set up in Willits.

“Mr. Cook will continue bidding on the contract,” said McCleary. “He has assured me that he’s expanding and growing his business and that he wants to pursue new avenues of business. He wants to keep the county contract.”

McCleary has no complaints with Cook’s contract work — it’s cheap and relatively problem-free. He hopes it’ll continue that way.

As far as McCleary is concerned, the best arrangement would be for Mr. Cook and Mr. Hunt to bury the hatchet and return to the 2002 days where Mr. Cook provided cheap towing to the county and Mr. Hunt took care of the wrecks Mr. Cook towed to Mr. Hunt's yards in Willits and Ukiah. 

But that doesn’t appear likely. Hunt says he recently told Cook that he’d drop the $1,900 parts bill if Cook would pay his long delayed $2,500 salvage bill. But Cook didn’t respond to the offer, and any hope for the reconciliation of the two famously independent men appears faint.

Adding to the unlikelihood of a reconciliation between Hunt and Cook is the newly hired manager of Wayne Hunt’s Willits wrecking yard: Marcy Barry, Cook’s former office manager who Cook was recently convicted of falsely imprisoning when she tried to quit.

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