No Fare

A crusading cabbie, an ambiguous law, capitalism at work

It's Britt C. Knopp, a 52-year-old cabbie with a muscular build and a laid-back demeanor. Sancho Panza to Cunningham's Don Quixote, Knopp helped collect signatures in the petition drive. After parking behind the Holiday Inn, Knopp recalls an altercation with Beatriz. "I had my trunk up," he explains, "ready to put the customer's luggage in, and Armand runs up and slams the trunk down and says, 'So you're the troublemaker. '"

Knopp crosses his arms and shakes his head. "We're troublemakers for trying to stop this?" he asks. "Nobody can make the money they [should] because of what's going on."

Beatriz was unavailable for comment, but his son, Harry Jones, was unapologetic. "If someone wants a cab, we don't force them into the van," Jones explains. "Just about all our bookings are done well in advance. For last-minute people, the concierges will take them outside and put them in a taxi."

Fred Harper

What's wrong with this picture? Cunningham and Knopp can't remember the last time anyone from Silver Fox walked a customer out to a waiting cab. "Since we lost all the hotel business," Cunningham says, "some of the drivers have been forced to pay off the concierges as well." It's the only way for cabbies to survive on the beach, he says.

Silver Fox isn't Beatriz's first venture into the transportation business. Previously, he operated a motor-coach company in New Bedford, Massachusetts, that shuttled people to Atlantic City, New Jersey. After closing in April 1997, the company was unable to refund about 50 people the $129 each paid in advance for transportation and a two-night stay in Atlantic City, according to a report in the Standard-Times, a newspaper in New Bedford. "I can assure you that I will use my best efforts to return your money to you," Beatriz wrote in a letter to customers. "I am, however, not in a financial position to do this immediately."

Beatriz then moved to Broward County and opened Silver Fox in June 2001. His troubles have continued. On July 18, he was charged with operating a taxicab without a license.

For-hire transportation is a hotly competitive industry. In Broward, 845 cabs, 367 town cars, and about 250 vans and limousines fight over a finite amount of business. And that doesn't even include illegal, unlicensed operators. In a weak economy, rivalries can be cutthroat. "It's very competitive," explains Kaplan of Consumer Affairs, "and everybody thinks somebody else has an advantage."

There's no doubt about it. The edge clearly goes to those who have influence in the tourism establishment -- which, judging by the comments of some industry big shots, doesn't include the cabbies.

Linda Gill, a county Tourism Development Council member whose family owns the Sheraton Yankee Clipper and Sheraton Yankee Trader, doesn't believe her hotels or others are doing anything wrong. "I don't feel it's illegal," she says, sidestepping the point of the cabbies' complaint. "If a guest comes and asks for a limo, we will bring one." Yeah, the cabbies say, but what about a guest who's just looking for a quick inexpensive way -- any way -- to get to the airport?

Christopher Pollock, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Lodging and Hospitality Association, is of much the same opinion as Gill. "The whole cab situation in Broward is less than desirable," he says. "There's been a lot of controversy and unreliability. I think some people have looked for alternatives. There's nothing illegal about what they're doing. If a customer wants to pay more money to ride in a luxury town car with a friendly chauffeur, he has a right to do so." Sure, Cunningham says, provided the customer knows ahead of time that he's going to pay as much as $4 more to get out of town.

Pollock even suggests that the cabbies get what they deserve. Some of them are rude, he says, and their attitudes leave much "room for improvement" (though judging by the limo drivers' aggressive cruising tactics, there's little evidence that any of them attended finishing school.)

Cunningham steams as he sits in traffic on Fort Lauderdale Beach Boulevard, another cigarette between his fingers now. Nestled below the front armrest is a stack of papers: county ordinances, letters, petitions. He pulls a drag and drops ashes into the tray. "They do have an advantage," he says bitterly, explaining that concierges and car services have divided up the beach market, mob-style. "What gets me is to see people tip the concierge. I want to tell them, 'Don't. He'll be getting more of your money in just a few minutes. '"

He turns and waves his finger, as if it were a sword drawn by a man from La Mancha, at the beach hotels. "All we're trying to do," he says, "is get them to do what's right."

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