IPART NSW 2014 Review of Maximum Towing Fees (light & heavy vehicles) Victorian Automobile Chamber of Commerce (VACC) submission

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1 IPART NSW 2014 Review of Maximum Towing Fees (light & heavy vehicles) Victorian Automobile Chamber of Commerce (VACC) submission July

2 Contents VACC... 3 Executive Summary... 3 Limitations of the ESC methodology... 5 Proposed Methodology Contact Gary Cowen Towing Division Manager Victorian Automobile Chamber of Commerce Level St Kilda Road Melbourne Vic 3004 P

3 VACC The Victorian Automobile Chamber of Commerce (VACC) is Victoria s peak retail automotive industry association, representing the interests of 5,500 members in over 20 retail automotive sectors (including towing) that employ over 50,000 Victorians. Executive Summary The VACC welcomes the opportunity to make a submission to IPART s review of maximum towing fees (light and heavy vehicles). The VACC represents accident tow truck operators in Victoria and is making this submission on the grounds of its experience with the Victorian Government s Essential Services Commission s (ESC) accident towing fee reviews. The focus of our submission is on the proposed methodology for the review. In the Issues Paper, IPART is proposing a methodology similar to the ESC s pricing reviews. The VACC has challenged the ESC methodology in its previous price reviews and has subsequently commissioned a detailed cost analysis of the Victorian accident towing industry. Some of the costs are commercially sensitive and are not detailed in this submission. However, the VACC would be happy to discuss the methodology and findings with IPART in further detail. The VACC would like to share this methodology with IPART to ensure that the review is based on sound economic analysis that reflects the actual business models of accident towing and not on desk based analysis and assumptions. As IPART may be aware, the ESC has struggled to obtain robust data on the costs of accident towing in Victoria and has subsequently made estimations to determine the regulated prices for accident towing. 3

4 The VACC would like to point out the limitations of the ESC s methodology, and to propose an alternative pricing methodology that is based on the efficient costs to operate an accident towing business. Specifically, to estimate the level of tow truck utilization required for a tow truck operator to break even their costs and to also obtain a reasonable rate of return. In respect to storage, regulated fees should be based on market leasing rates to prevent inefficient resource allocation and also the associated administrative and operational costs. 4

5 Limitations of the ESC methodology The ESC has relied upon the Price Waterhouse Coopers 2005 survey of tow truck operators breakdown of costs in its 2007 and subsequent reviews. The ESC noted, The sharing of resources (costs) between accident and trade towing has important consequences for determining the appropriate level of regulated accident towing fees. Only the costs attributable to regulated services should be included in the cost base for determining regulated fees, but this requires costs to be allocated between regulated and non regulated activities. The above statement by the ESC is correct. However, in the absence of robust and reliable information, the ESC has relied upon the attribution percentage method to determine the proportion of towing costs attributable to accident towing. In the absence of more robust and reliable information about vehicle use, the Commission believes that it is reasonable to assume that the attribution percentage lies somewhere between the proportion reported by towing operators in this review (approximately 54 per cent) and that adopted for the last review undertaken in 2005 (24 per cent). As a result, the Commission has adopted an attribution percentage that reflects the midpoint of these two estimates namely 39 per cent. The ESC estimation of operating costs is a simple calculation of the total operating costs per tow truck per annum. From this the proportion of costs attributable to accident towing is estimated. In its 2010 report, the ESC estimated $55,094 total operating costs per accident tow truck. The average number of accident tows per licence was 100 and the average number of accident towing licences per truck was 2 at the time of this report. With this information, the total operating costs per accident tow was estimated at $275. The obvious limitations of this per tow truck approach is that it does not take into consideration the overall utilization rate of an accident tow truck nor the opportunity costs borne by tow truck operators in 5

6 foregoing other non regulated towing work. These factors have a significant bearing on the actual cost of accident towing services. The ESC in its recent and past reviews of regulated fees for accident towing has drawn upon benchmarking studies of non regulated towing services and interstate regulated fees to assist with the determination of regulated fees. However, the ESC has recognized the weaknesses of these approaches but still used these benchmarking studies to assess whether the accident towing fees in Victoria are reasonably within the ballpark of non regulated and interstate regulated towing fees. Benchmarking other towing services is not comparable and the attribution methodology does not take into account the lower asset utilisation (tow truck) associated with accident towing services vis à vis other towing services and may impose opportunity costs on accident towing operators of foregone revenue opportunities in other segments of the towing market. NERA Economic Consulting undertook benchmarking of accident towing and other related towing services for the Essential Services Commission in Our results highlight that the fees charged for trade towing are significantly lower than the regulated fee for a typical accident tow Table That said, this likely reflects the greater predictability of trade towing and it being a less time sensitive service, when compared to accident towing. These characteristics of trade towing services allows tow truck operators to conduct trade tows during off peak times when they are not otherwise allocated to an accident towing job, or during clearway times. 1 1 NERA Economic Consulting, Benchmarking Accident Towing Fees and Options for Annual Adjustment, A Final report for the Essential Services Commission, 8 April 2013, p 15 6

7 However, NERA s observation conflicts with tow truck operators who claim that most trade towing occurs during normal business hours from 8.00 am to 5.00 pm, Monday to Friday. Trade tow clients are principally motor car dealerships (new cars) and the smash repair/motor mechanic sector. Given that about 75 percent of accident towing allocations occur between 8.00am and 6.00 pm, it is difficult to fathom how accident tow truck operators can use their designated licensed tow truck to conduct trade tows during off peak times. There would very little trade towing jobs available during off peak times. In addition, while trade towing is less time sensitive to accident towing, trade tow clients still expect their motor vehicles to be delivered on time to meet their customer s requirements (pick up a new car at a particular time or to have a car repaired by a designated time). NERA Economic Consulting stated further, Due to the lack of publicly available data, we have obtained indicative prices for trade towing services by making direct inquiries with a number of tow truck operators (17 in total) across Australia. The price range represents a trade tow for a passenger vehicle with a towing distance of approximately 10 to 20 kilometres within an urban area, assuming that the vehicle was readily accessible for towing purposes (and so equivalent to an accident tow without a salvage requirement). 7

8 Indicative trade towing fees for a passenger vehicle within urban areas (10 km to 20 km towing distance) Jurisdiction Price range New South Wales $110 $180 Victoria $110 $190 Queensland $95 $150 South Australia $80 $120 Western Australia $120 $264 Tasmania $88 $150 Northern Territory $77 $99 Australian Capital Territory $70 $88 Source: NERA Economic Consulting, Benchmarking Accident Towing Fees and Options for Annual Adjustment, A Final report for the Essential Services Commission, 8 April 2013, p 16. The range for trade towing fees in the above table are very wide and probably reflect the varying cost structures of individual tow truck businesses. In addition, it would have been preferable for NERA to survey towing businesses for a 15 km tow to provide a more accurate benchmark with the average 15 km accident tow used by the ESC. With any form of price benchmarking it is important to link prices with market share to obtain the market price otherwise the price benchmarking information is likely to provide a wide range of superficial prices. Lower prices would tend to reflect small players without the necessary scale to service the market and higher prices may reflect players whose core business is not the surveyed service (e.g. core business motor mechanic and has an old tow truck that is used from time to time). 8

9 Survey price benchmarking also needs to be treated with caution as most operators provide their list price. This may not reflect the market price as operators in a competitive market usually have to lower their list price to win sizeable work volumes. Accordingly, the list price is more akin to a spot price where individual oneoff transaction buyers are price takers. The volume of this type of work is small compared to the core trade towing that occurs on a contractual basis. 9

10 Proposed Methodology An alternative approach is to estimate the level of utilization required for a tow truck operator to break even their costs and to also obtain a reasonable rate of return. In this way, the proportion of time a tow truck is utilized for accident towing compared with other forms of towing becomes a redundant exercise. The alternative methodology should be applied to other segments of the towing industry and to different scales of operations. The different business models for the various segments of the towing industry and the level of utilization of a tow truck has the greatest bearing on the hourly cost, financial viability and profitability of a tow truck operation. An activity based costing model should be applied to accident towing. This requires process mapping of each activity, the identification of personnel undertaking these activities and the average time involved to calculate the appropriate costs. The activity based costing model is methodologically superior to the attribution percentage and the cost per tow truck approaches. Both of the latter approaches will produce different outcomes for each tow truck operator due to the varying levels of regulated and non regulated tow operations and per truck utilization rates that exist between tow operators. For the purposes for allocating overheads, an activity based approach should be undertaken to quantify the actual time taken to provide management, scheduling/dispatch support to tow truck drivers, and to quantify the actual time taken to provide administrative and operational support for the storage of motor vehicles. Tow truck, labour and overhead costs detailed should be GST exclusive and converted into an hourly cost and adjusted for the tow truck utilization rate (based 10

11 on billable hours given the standby nature of towing). Accordingly, it is possible to calculate the different types of costs over a range of tow truck utilization rates (e.g. 8 hours to 80 hours per week). Our report shows that the level of utilization of a tow truck plays a significant role in determining the hourly cost for operating a tow truck operation regardless whether it is undertaking accident, trade or breakdown towing. Similarly, cost of overheads will decline with greater utilization of a tow truck. Labour costs for tow truck drivers, depot managers and administrative/dispatch staff remain constant regardless of the level of tow truck utilization. Hourly cost analysis was undertaken for owner operators (single tow truck) undertaking trade/breakdown towing, major operators specializing in contract trade towing (dealerships and motor repairs), major operators specialising in breakdown towing with insurance companies and accident towing by licensed tow truck operators. As IPART is probably aware, Victoria has deregulated trade towing. This has enabled owner operators to run their business from home or on the road with minimal overheads. Contract trade towing particularly for dealerships tend to have lower overheads primarily due to smaller premises that only need to provide workshop and storage for their tow trucks. Similarly, major breakdown towing operators do not need substantial depots compared to accident towing. One major operator has two depots for the entire Melbourne area and also operates its Queensland call centre from its Melbourne office. The different segments of the towing market have different business models and different average tow truck utilization rates and hourly costs accordingly. A significant part of the trade and breakdown towing market in Victoria is undertaken 11

12 on a contractual basis with motor car dealerships and insurance companies respectively that provides a greater deal of certainty for these towing operators in terms of planning and scheduling to meet the required demand. Invariably, it is easier to achieve higher tow truck utilization and lower hourly costs in the trade and breakdown towing segment compared with accident towing. This is primarily due to the higher volume of towing jobs involved and the ability of tow truck operators to plan and schedule tow trucks in the most cost efficient manner. Cost Analysis of Storage Charges Increasingly, insurance companies are requesting tow truck operators to transport motor vehicles from the scene of an accident to their assessment/repair centre rather than return the motor vehicle directly to the tow truck operator s depot. In view of this, the VACC believes IPART should consider the separation of daily charges from the base accident towing fee to avoid unnecessary cross subsidisation. The administrative and operational maintenance costs associated with car storage should be borne only by those that benefit from using the storage and not be paid by other motor vehicle owners whose vehicle is towed and stored at alternative locations such as an insurance assessment/repair centre, smash repairer or at their home address. While there are sound public policy reasons for regulating tow truck storage fees to prevent unreasonable and exorbitant charges, these regulated fees should still be based on market rates to prevent inefficient resource allocation i.e. below market rates tend to encourage unnecessary over consumption of storage space by insurance companies and motor vehicle owners, and result in larger than necessary tow truck premises. 12

13 Storage costs should be based on the cost of commercial leasing rates for the average depot space allocated for a towed motor vehicle. The cost per vehicle space should be calculated (with a low to high range and average cost per annum) using commercial leasing rates per sqm (excluding GST and including outgoings). The actual revenue received per motor vehicle in a depot should be calculated on the average number of tows per annum and the average percentage of tows that return directly to the depot. Storage space for motor vehicles (sq m) should be based on the actual space requirements for a motor vehicle and the space required to manoeuvre in and out of the allotted space. Benchmarking of self storage rates for motor vehicles should be undertaken in respect to covered and uncovered storage to ascertain whether the current regulated storage fee is within market based storage rates for motor vehicles. The administration and management of stored smashed motor vehicles is a significant cost and invariably greater than the provision of physical space for a motor vehicle. Tow truck operator s administrative staff spend considerable time liaising with insurance and finance companies seeking directions as to the relocation of the motor vehicle. Vehicles have to be moved around within the storage area (some stay for extended periods due to special circumstances such as being abandoned, owner difficult to contact, or encumbrance issues) usually by the end of each week to provide storage space for the next batch of accident vehicles. Tow truck operators need to comply with occupational health and safety regulations in treating the storage area as a hazard area given the various types of hazardous materials in a motor vehicle that can injure staff as well as owners picking up their motor vehicle or collecting 13

14 personal items. The administrative and operational costs associated with motor vehicle storage should be built into the daily storage fee and not in the base accident towing fee for the same reasons as discussed previously. Another storage issue that may affect NSW tow truck operators is uncollected monies relating to abandoned vehicles. These tend to be older vehicles that are uninsured and abandoned by the owner at the scene of the accident or at the tow truck operator s depot. Most tow truck operators eventually sell the abandoned vehicle to a scrap dealer. However, the funds received from the scrap dealer do not offset the tow truck operator s loss of towing and storage revenue and the administrative and secondary tow costs to the scrap dealer. These costs are treated as bad debts and the ESC allows the bad debts to be recognized as a business cost for inclusion in the base towing fee. However, these costs should not be borne by other motor vehicle owners who use only accident towing services. 14

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