TAMPA — A local limousine company wants to offer lower fares and customer loyalty discounts, but it can't: There's a $50 minimum fare for all limos in Hillsborough County, no matter how brief the ride.
That's why Black Pearl Limousines was in court Monday, suing the county's Public Transportation Commission over its minimum-fare regulation. During the court hearing, a lawyer representing the company and two of its customers told a circuit judge it's unreasonable and irrational to limit limo companies' discounts.
The regulation that Black Pearl is against is not new -— the commission created it in the early 1980s after a host of public hearings. And it's not unique to Tampa. Miami-Dade and Orange counties have similar minimum limo fares, though St. Petersburg and Pinellas County do not.
Lawyer Justin Pearson, representing Black Pearl, argued that previous cases formed a precedent against the regulation and that customers have a right to cheaper limo fares. Pearson is with the Florida chapter of the nonprofit libertarian law firm Institute for Justice.
"Time and time again, your honor, the court has explained that regardless of the industry, unnecessary price restrictions violate the Florida Constitution," Pearson told the judge. "It has never, ever contradicted it."
Hillsborough Circuit Judge Charles E. Bergmann listened, sometimes removing his glasses to look Pearson in the eye.
Then Rob Brazel, the county's managing attorney, spoke on behalf of the transportation commission and in favor of the minimum fare. He said limos act like cabs when they're not busy, and without the minimum, they would pick up regular cab customers for basic rides rather than just ritzy transportation —- an unfair competition, he said.
He argued that the commission should continue to regulate limo fares because the Legislature should make those regulatory choices. Those "who are affected by them," like Black Pearl, should not.
Tampa lawyer Seth Mills also spoke in favor of the regulation.
"There is no debate in this case," he said. "Separating these industries and having two vibrant industries — taxicab industry and limousine industry — are in the public interest."
Pearson cited New York, Philadelphia and Dallas, which do not have a similar regulation. Mills pointed to San Antonio, Texas; Nashville and Atlanta, which do.
"Without the rule, these two industries would effectively cannibalize one another by having destructive competition against one another," Mills said, citing testimony from the executive director of the transportation commission.
After more than an hour of talk, the judge did not come to a decision. He told the lawyers to send in written rebuttals by Feb. 20 or reconvene at a later date. After that, he'll announce his decision.
Both parties chose the former. The judge said their statements should be no longer than five pages.
"Forget the embellishment," he said. "Get right to the point."
Contact Rachel Crosby at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400. Follow @rachelacrosby.