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After White indictment, arguments swirl over need for transportation commission

State Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, said, “There’s a reason these things happen at the PTC and why it’s a fertile ground for these problems.’’

MELISSA LYTTLE | Times

State Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, said, “There’s a reason these things happen at the PTC and why it’s a fertile ground for these problems.’’

TAMPA — Florida has nothing else like it.

The Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission, made up of elected officials, does everything from setting the number of taxi cabs allowed in the county to establishing which tow truck drivers can be called to accidents.

That's a highly political lineup of duties, and the commission's history has been a controversial one — from a 1997 scandal involving a sweetheart deal for a Tampa City Council member to a former director's resignation amid accusations of lax financial oversight and abusive treatment of employees.

Now the agency known as the PTC stands at the center of an indictment against former Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White, who served on its board eight years. And the agency's fiercest critics, and supporters, are once again debating:

Does Hillsborough need the commission?

"There's a reason these things happen at the PTC and why it's a fertile ground for these problems," said state Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, who unsuccessfully pushed for legislation to dismantle the commission.

But Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller, who serves on the PTC, said the indictment is a reflection of White's actions, not the agency itself.

"It tarnishes the individual," he said, "but not the commission."

Other counties and cities have consumer agencies that regulate many aspects of for-hire vehicles, but Hillsborough's PTC is the only special district dedicated solely to the regulation.

In the 1970s, then-Hillsborough Sheriff Malcolm Beard was tired of dealing with unregulated chaos as ambulances and tow trucks raced to accident scenes to pick up business, recalled Stephen Michelini, a former county staffer and now a consultant. So Beard went to legislators to seek a remedy.

The commission was created by a special state statute in 1976. Taxis were regulated first; others — including limos and tow trucks — were added later.

"It does serve a useful purpose," said Michelini, whose client list includes the Hillsborough County Towing Association. "It's a stabilizing force."

In recent years, taxi regulation has caught most of the headlines. But the White indictment centers on regulation of tow truck drivers.

The seven-member commission determines if tow truck operators are eligible to get on the list of companies that law enforcement calls for accidents. Those rotation lists guarantee the company a more regular opportunity for work and more money.

But the commission cannot guarantee anyone a spot on a rotation list; it's up to the Sheriff's Office or police department to add the certified companies.

The certification application is $1,000, and each driver pays a $100 application fee. Annual renewal is $300.

The investment pays off pretty quickly, said Mario Tamargo, chief inspector for the Public Transportation Commission.

Consider the price tags: $115 per tow; $25 per day in potential storage fees, or $50 if it's past closing time; $4 per mile for up to 10 miles; $10 fuel surcharge.

Simply doing work for an apartment complex, for instance, can't pull in nearly that kind of money.

To get certified by the PTC, companies have to show they are insured, and their trucks must pass inspections. The commission's board reviews nationwide criminal background checks and financial situations of applicants before voting.

Currently, 63 companies are certified under the commission and 55 of those were on at least one agency's rotation list.

Dan Raulerson, the Plant City mayor who served with White on the PTC, said he was not aware of any wrongdoing in issuing certificates. Most of them are approved anyway.

"Quite frankly, anybody who bought a certificate is purely stupid," he said. "The certificates are fairly easy to get."

Joe Chillura, a former Hillsborough County commissioner, said he feels county staff members should take over the duties. He said he believed politics has left the agency vulnerable to allegations such as the ones the federal government is now making against White.

"It has a history of shenanigans, and it seems to me if an agency has that kind of long, protracted history that those in power ought to say, 'Wait a minute,' " Chillura said.

Storms, a former Hillsborough commissioner who served on the PTC, said she would try to get another agency audit.

"This is yet one more disappointing example of how the PTC has outlived its usefulness and is way more trouble than it's worth," she said.

Michelini, the Hillsborough County Towing Association consultant, said the PTC helps weed out the fly-by-night operators by demanding that any company that wants government work meet high standards.

He said dissolving the commission would be a bad idea.

"Corruption doesn't know any favorites," he said. "If you start closing down every institution that's had a problem, there are none left."

Times staff writers Kim Wilmath and Tia Mitchell and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3374.

After White indictment, arguments swirl over need for transportation commission 06/15/11 [Last modified: Thursday, June 16, 2011 8:34am]
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