Local bill to abolish Hillsborough's Public Transportation Commission dies

Published Dec. 3, 2013

TAMPA — A local bill aimed at abolishing Hillsborough County's controversial Public Transportation Commission died Monday at a meeting of the county's legislative delegation.

Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, and Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, filed the bill to allow Hillsborough voters to hold a referendum on the fate of the PTC, an agency that regulates taxicabs, limousines, basic life-support ambulances and tow trucks.

"It's certainly disappointing that Hillsborough taxpayers won't have a say in this issue," Grant said after the meeting.

Grant and Brandes said they now plan to pursue a statewide law. It would not seek to eliminate the PTC, but rather would ban what they see as transportation regulations that are anticompetitive and anticonsumer. Their bill was inspired, in part, by a PTC rule that kept the Uber smartphone ride service out of Tampa during the Republican National Convention last year.

"The biggest frustration today was that the narrative was framed that public safety and a competitive market can't coexist in Hillsborough County," Grant said.

But questions about safety — such as who would do background checks to keep sex offenders out of the driver's seat — played a key role in Monday's discussion.

If the local bill had passed and voters had decided to kill the PTC, legislators expected that some parts of its job would go to county government. But the lack of a plan for that transition troubled even legislators who voted to let the local bill go forward.

"What I can't get past is what is the regulatory structure going to look like if we pass this bill?" said Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa.

Troubling, she said, was that several years ago legislators considered a similar bill to eliminate the PTC, and polled local governments about which ones wanted to take on the job. None did.

Young voted for the bill, but said she would vote against it if future versions did not include a "definite, in writing, 100 percent path of regulation."

Under the delegation's rules, at least three senators and five representatives had to vote for the bill for it to be filed. But only four representatives voted for it, while six voted against it.

The PTC, created by the Legislature in 1976, is governed by an appointed seven-member board that includes elected officials from the county and its cities, and has its own staff. It is unique in Florida and has often been the source of controversy.

Most recently, then-director Cesar Padilla retired last summer after the Tampa Bay Times reported that he was moonlighting while payroll records showed he was on the PTC's clock or out sick. And former County Commissioner Kevin White is in federal prison for taking bribes as PTC chairman from an undercover FBI agent posing as a tow-truck company operator.

Then there's the RNC. During the convention, the PTC required Uber, a private-driver service that lets patrons summon a ride with a smartphone app, to charge at least $50 for a trip from downtown to Ybor City. That's because the agency considered Uber a limousine company, not a taxi service.

Faced with charges three times higher than what they paid in New York City, Uber fans took to Twitter to denounce the rule and, by extension, Tampa. The criticism fueled the move to eliminate the agency, which Grant says stifles competition.

"The question is, should consumers have a choice?" he asked during a meeting that drew a crowd of taxicab companies and drivers, who opposed the bill.

But County Commissioner and PTC Chairman Victor Crist said the agency provides critically important consumer protection. Yes, he said, the agency has had problems, but said it is tightening its policies, improving its operations and putting new, more professional management in place.

Once the PTC puts its house in order, Crist said, it can look at regulatory policies like the one that outraged fans of Uber.

"Abolishing the PTC and the important safety safeguards it upholds is reckless and needlessly puts consumers at risk," Crist said. "I urge you to allow the ongoing reforms to continue and vote 'no' on this well-meaning, but reckless bill."

Also Monday, the delegation supported a proposed bill that would allow county government agencies to opt out of Hillsborough's civil service system.

The vote came after the county's elected officials said the change would reduce unnecessary regulation, save money and give them the hiring and personnel flexibility they need to work in a competitive labor market.

The Civil Service Board covers about 9,400 employees working for 21 different governmental organizations, from the County Commission, Sheriff's Office and Clerk of Courts, all the way down to the county law library.

But local officials say the regulations are overly burdensome. County Attorney Chip Fletcher put four binders on the table in front of legislators. The binders, he said, contained an estimated 600 job descriptions affected by the Civil Service Board's rules.