By Michael E. Miller
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By Chris Joseph
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On this recent Saturday morning, Cunningham is patrolling Fort Lauderdale Beach. The weather is perfect. Tourists bustle in and out of restaurants and stores. Waves crash gently against white sand. It's paradise. But Cunningham, who's lived in South Florida for more than two decades, doesn't even comment on the weather. Like Cervantes' idealistic hero, this cabbie wants to right a wrong.
The driver's-side window is cracked, and dangling between Cunningham's index and middle fingers is a smoldering Marlboro Ultra Light. His eyes are fixed on the roadside, looking for evidence of a scheme that he says bilks unwitting tourists and disadvantages honest cabbies. "There's one right there," Cunningham says, pointing to the left. "The green van in front of the Clipper."
A van with county license stickers on its passenger-side windshield waits outside the Sheraton Yankee Clipper for its next fare. It's participating in an illegal scheme in which hotel concierges bypass taxis and herd guests into more expensive town cars and vans, with the drivers providing hotel employees with healthy kickbacks, Cunningham says.
"We used to have three or four cabs lined up at every hotel on the beach," the cabbie says angrily. "Now we don't even bother, because we won't get any work."
The concierge-limousine partnership may be nothing but standard scratch-my-back-and-I'll-scratch-yours entrepreneurism. But it's illegal, 100 Broward taxi drivers have charged. According to county ordinances regulating for-hire transportation, all car services must be arranged in advance. Only licensed taxi drivers such as Cunningham are allowed to pick up fares without appointments.
"Broward isn't enforcing the regulations," says Alipour Bahram, owner of Dolphin Limousine Service, one limo company that actually does make advance appointments in deference to the rights of taxis. Even at hotels with which he has a contract, such as the Sheraton Yankee Clipper, there are problems, he says. Kickbacks, overcharging, strong-arming. "They [the front-end hotel employees] don't care even if the guy has insurance or not," Bahram says. "The management needs to look at the companies they're using. If the companies don't have insurance, the hotel could be liable."
It has been tough, Bahram says. He has seen his business drop noticeably since the concierge-driver partnerships sprang up about three years ago. But the taxi drivers, having been essentially barred from the lucrative beach runs to the airport and Port Everglades, have experienced a bigger bite out of their business.
Broward County officials are aware of the problem. In February, Cunningham filed a petition with the signatures of 133 taxi drivers asking the Broward County Commission to require the Consumer Affairs Division of Taxicabs and Limousine Regulations to enforce the laws already on the books. "Taxi drivers are being cheated of their lawful business," the petition reads, "and hotel guests are being deprived of their right to reasonably priced transportation."
But the cabbies aren't getting much sympathy from county regulatory officials or from the tourism industry. "Hotels provide services to their guests," says Larry Kaplan, assistant director of the county Consumer Affairs Division, "and if you're a hotel guest who has had a couple of cocktails, you may want the hotel to arrange transportation for you. I've been at hotels in D.C. where the concierge or the bellhop will ask you, 'Would you like a cab or a car?' It's what the finer hotels do."
Even if that were true (maybe we don't spend enough time at "finer" hotels, but we can't remember the last time such a choice was offered), it is by now a moot point on Fort Lauderdale Beach. Because of the limo services' success, it's rare to see taxis waiting in front of hotels. In fact, the drivers say they're often run off by hotel employees, putting an extra squeeze on the cab-riding public. "We're losing so much money," Cunningham says. "But the public is losing money too, because the limos can charge whatever they want."
Complicating the issue is a certain ambiguity in the Broward ordinance. While the law specifies that pickups from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and Port Everglades must be arranged at least one hour in advance, it requires only "pre-arranged appointments" elsewhere in the county.
So would it be considered "pre-arranged" if a hotel employee places guests in a town car only seconds after notifying its driver? "That's questionable," Kaplan admits.
The ambiguity has opened a loophole for aggressive outfits like Armand Beatriz's Silver Fox Car Service. Operating out of the Holiday Inn at 999 Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd., Beatriz has simply cut out the middleman -- the concierge -- to create his own turnkey operation. Beatriz rents lobby space at the Holiday Inn where he hawks day trips, skidoo rentals, and, of course, hiscar services. He charges $16 for a single-person ride to the airport, $8 per person for two people, and $6 per person for three or more. A taxi would be about $14 and could take as many as five people.
Cunningham, talking about Beatriz's burgeoning monopoly at the Holiday Inn as he cruises past the hotel, spots a familiar taxi approaching in oncoming traffic. He rolls the window down and signals to the driver.
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."
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."