Montgomery County's tow truck operators are proving that organization is crucial when it comes to influencing legislation before the County Council.

Last week, the council was scheduled to vote on new regulations limiting what tow companies can charge motorists on police-ordered tows. The legislation was prompted by complaints from motorists that their towing bills were too high -- in a few cases as much as $500.

Under current rules, drivers pay $75 when police tell a towing company to take a wrecked or abandoned car to the firm's lot. But when an owner asks that a vehicle be taken to an alternative location -- like a home or a repair shop -- private operators can set prices as high as they want.

The proposed legislation would restrict a towing company's ability to set its own prices by establishing a flat $95 fee indexed to inflation. On top of that, an additional $3 per mile could be charged when motorists request their vehicle be towed to a home or repair shop. The bill also sets stricter limits on which tow operators can be registered in each police district to respond to police-ordered tows.

But at the Sept. 28 council meeting, about a dozen tow truck operators dressed in work clothes crowded the meeting room to oppose the legislation, saying it will hurt their business. Their presence persuaded the council to delay their vote by a week.

The next day, the tow truck operators took their protest on the road. About 20 tow trucks poured into the parking lot of Kensington Library to make a statement during the County Council's town hall meeting at the library.

"I can report that no council members were towed that night," quipped Patrick Lacefield, a spokesman for the County Council. But he added the trucks caused some gridlock on the parking lot.

Even so, the protest, along with behind-the-scenes lobbying, prompted the council Tuesday to again delay a final vote. Lacefield said he isn't sure when that vote will be taken.

Ambulance Fees Discussed

This week County Council members got their first detailed look at a plan to charge a fee for ambulance use in the county.

The plan, submitted last month by County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), would charge $350 to people who are taken to the hospital in an ambulance. County officials say the fee, similar to fees charged by many other Washington area jurisdictions, could be used to pay for new fire and rescue equipment.

Some volunteer fire companies have expressed concern that such a fee would discourage the uninsured and elderly from calling 911, though proponents have argued that much, if not all, of the cost to consumers would be defrayed by health insurance (for those who have it) or possibly waived (for those who don't).

Gordon Aoyagi, the county's fire administrator, said at a Tuesday hearing before the council's three-member public safety committee that data from other jurisdictions with ambulance-user fees suggest that they do not cut down on calls for emergency service.

Council members said at the hearing that they want to see more data on the question of how a fee would affect 911 calls, and committee chairman Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty) said in an interview after the hearing that "there are a lot of questions to answer."

"We need to understand how do you really implement this thing in a way that doesn't deter people from using it," he said.

The bill will be the topic of a public hearing Oct. 19, and the public safety committee is tentatively scheduled to review the proposal twice more, on Oct. 25 and Nov. 15. The full council could vote on the bill as early as the end of next month.

The District, Prince George's County, Arlington County, Alexandria, Frederick and Baltimore City charge ambulance fees. Fairfax County is the most recent addition to the list; the county's Board of Supervisors approved an ambulance fee in May.

The public safety committee rejected a similar proposal last year. But since then, several reports have indicated that the county's fire and rescue fleet is in bad shape, and officials say new ambulances and fire trucks need to be purchased. The ambulance user fee is seen as a viable way of generating the money needed to do so. Officials from the county executive's office estimate the fee could generate between $6 million and $10 million a year.

Ballot Initiatives to Be Debated

The first debate in the escalating campaign over whether voters should approve three November ballot initiatives will take place next week.

The Montgomery County Civic Federation, which is backing Question C, a proposition that would eliminate at-large seats on the County Council, is sponsoring a debate Monday between council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg) and council President Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large).

Andrews, the only council member to endorse Question C, plans to argue that restricting council members to only one district would limit developers' influence in county politics. Silverman, who is strongly opposed to the proposal, has said that at-large seats give the council a deeper perspective during policy debates.

The debate, dubbed the "Great Debate," is scheduled for 7:45 p.m. in the third-floor hearing room of the Stella B. Werner Council Office Building in Rockville.

Later this month, the Montgomery County League of Women Voters has scheduled another debate on all three ballot questions. Question A would limit the County Council's ability to override a property tax cap, and Question B would limit council members and the county executive to three four-year terms.

But while Silverman has agreed to enter potentially hostile territory Monday to debate Question C, anti-tax activist Robin Ficker, the main proponent of Questions A and B, said Duncan has declined an invitation to debate him on Question A.

"If someone can run for governor while they are county executive and speak to people in Cumberland, speak to people in Prince Frederick, all over the state . . . why can't he debate this issue," Ficker said in an interview.

Duncan spokesman David Weaver responded, "Bottom line, we are debating Mr. Ficker, we are debating him November 2 at the polls."