TAMPA — The Public Transportation Commission has been blasted by state lawmakers among others for being too cozy with the taxicab and limo-rental firms it regulates.
But with Uber and Lyft now operating legally in Hillsborough County and the ax hanging over the agency, those firms aren't too keen on paying it any money.
PTC board members learned Tuesday that the agency is owed about $483,000, mostly in unpaid permit fees from taxicab, limousine-rental and tow-truck companies.
"There's a hesitation of some transportation providers to pay their fees," said PTC Chairman Al Higginbotham. "It's a concern."
The agency, which has just nine employees, has enough funds to continue through the end of the year, Higginbotham said. But he has charged new interim executive director Kevin Jackson with finding out why firms are withholding payment.
Part of the answer will be familiar territory for the agency. Taxicab and limo firms say there is not a level playing field for them to compete with ridesharing firms Uber and Lyft.
The two ridesharing firms pay a combined $400,000 to the PTC to operate in Hillsborough through a new agreement approved in November. That averages out to about $66 per vehicle for the estimated 6,000 rideshare drivers operating in Tampa Bay, said Brook Negusei, the owner of Cab Plus.
By contrast, taxicab firms pay the agency about $550 for every vehicle on the road.
That fee made sense when there was a cap on the number of vehicles allowed to operate, but is no longer viable with ridesharing drivers flooding the market, he said.
"The pie has been split into so many pieces, the driver can't afford it nor can the company," Negusei said.
At a PTC board meeting Tuesday, Negusei and Louis Minardi, owner of the Yellow Cab Co. of Tampa, called on the board to waive or discount fees, as it did in 2016 when fees were reduced by about 50 percent.
Board members did not respond to the requests but the clock is ticking for them to find a solution.
State Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, has filed a bill that would abolish the agency by Dec. 31.
It comes after the PTC was investigated by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement at the request of state Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa, after the Tampa Bay Times reported that taxicab drivers were used in sting operations to ticket Uber and Lyft drivers.
That investigation concluded that there was no criminal activity but FDLE agents have opened a new criminal inquiry into whether former agency chief Kyle Cockream authorized the deletion of public records from agency cellphones.
PTC leaders are already winding down the operations in anticipation of the bill passing. Board members Tuesday approved a waiver to suspend holding subcommittee meetings where rules are set. They also retroactively approved the hiring of Jackson as a transitional director tasked with figuring out how to transfer the agency's duties to Hillsborough County government.
"It's not like we have to take every rule here and shove it into the county," Jackson said. "It gives us an good opportunity to look at it differently."
Jackson temporarily oversaw the PTC in 2013. Before that, he was chief investigator of Hillsborough County's Consumer Protection Agency.
This time, he came out of retirement to take the job. He will be paid $130,000 a year, roughly $20,000 less than Cockream was paid.
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at email@example.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.