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County to independent cabbies: Get lost



A long line of cars and vans from small cab companies waits in front of the West Concourse of the Orange County Convention Center, there for patrons of the Global Pet Expo to come out in search of rides to lunch. The drivers display a patient camaraderie, despite knowing that the next few fares may be their last.

At the end of April, drivers backed by just four cab companies will be allowed to serve the convention center, and Mears Transportation Group, which will get the biggest chunk of the business, gets to dictate what drivers from the other companies can do.

About 300 families depend on taxi business at the convention center, according to Gasner Ripert, a 41-year-old driver, because it's the last place in the area they can regularly pick up fares. Convention center patrons have been a financial lifeline for 20 years, as the drivers for small companies — known as "independents" — have watched Mears lock up business at the area's airports, and sign exclusive deals with major hotels and resorts. Losing the convention center will probably drive the independents out of business, he says.

Orange County commissioners voted unanimously March 23 to bar independents from the convention center as of April 29. About four dozen drivers showed up to glower at commissioners, waving signs because they'd been told they wouldn't be allowed to speak.

Early in the meeting commissioners approved tax incentives for various companies as Orange County Mayor Richard Crotty stressed the importance of getting and keeping local jobs, noting that the unemployment rate is now at 12 percent. But when the final vote came on taxi drivers' livelihood, however, commissioners spent less time debating that than they spent lauding the Winter Park High School championship basketball team.

Mears is now the largest taxi firm in central Florida, operating more than 1,000 vehicles under Checker, City, Yellow Cab and various specialty company names. Jorge Rosario, vice president of the Orlando-Orange County United Taxi Association — which claims to represent all drivers, even those working for Mears — figures that Mears already controls about 80 percent of local taxi business.

Not many local drivers own their own cars; most lease them, paying several hundred dollars weekly. That's a method of which Mears was an early innovator. In 1976, Paul Mears Jr. fired all his drivers and rehired them as "independent contractors," leasing their cars from him. That let Mears avoid paying health insurance and worker's compensation. Insurance on the vehicles covered every occupant except the driver. That's still the case, according to Rosario.

Now the independent-contractor setup is an industry standard, but drivers like Ripert say Mears still charges drivers more per week than its smaller rivals, topping that rate off with a long list of fees and fines for supposed services or infractions. Those extra fees sometimes result in drivers owing several hundred dollars beyond the lease fee each week. In 2008, Orlando Weekly calculated that a driver working 14-hour days might bring home $13,000 a year, while Mears made $45,000 off the same cab.

The only county commissioner to throw independent cab drivers a bone was Linda Stewart, who says she'd like to see the county look at an interlocal agreement with Orlando, expanding the city's cab licensing procedure to work county-wide.

"I feel like that is an opportunity for the independent cabbers to then be able to be throughout the city of Orlando and Orange County; if they're licensed, that would help them have access to jobs," Stewart says.

That wouldn't necessarily help, since independents are already tightly restricted within the city. Orlando has regulated taxi service since about 1974, according to Sgt. Barb Jones, public information officer for the Orlando Police Department. Cabs not holding a city permit can drop off passengers inside Orlando, but not pick them up. Anyone caught violating that rule — a common occurrence — gets a fine of at least $220, doubling on a second offense, and could have their cab impounded.

It's up to local hotels to say who they'll let serve their guests, but it must be a city-authorized company; and the city watches taxi stands for violators, Jones says.

Mears had long controlled all taxi service in Orlando, but another company fought that in 1981 and the city implemented a permitting system — which, though it let smaller companies operate in the city, was built to give the lion's share of permits to Mears.

Around the same time, Mears got control of most airport taxi service, including the "taxi starters" who determine which cabs get passengers.

Now the convention center's going to a very similar system. Under the county contract, Mears cabs will get 40 percent of the convention center's business, while Star and Diamond cabs get 25 percent each and Sharp cabs get the final 10 percent. But it's also Mears that will determine how the calls are allocated, and will be the arbiter of the county's guidelines on cab cleanliness and service.

That's not a new situation; when a big taxi contract has come up in the past few decades, Mears is usually the only bidder. Independent drivers say that's not just a function of size, but that local governments write the rules specifically to favor Mears.

Roger Chapin, Mears' vice president for public affairs, views the contracting process differently.

"I wouldn't say it was skewed toward Mears," he says. "I would say people who could promise and provide good service would have a leg up in respect to that RFP." The criteria were set by a procurement committee that included only one elected official, Chapin says.

The five-year convention center contract specifies that the top-level operator must have at least 100 cabs; it's likely that only Mears meets that standard. Even the lowest-level operator to be allowed must have 25. Sharp, which got the last 10 percent of service, has 26 cabs, according to Stewart.

Mears is subcontracting a quarter of its 40 percent share to a smaller company, Chapin says. Business at the convention center — and the number of available taxi drivers — fluctuates with the seasons; but it's unlikely that the company will need to hire more drivers to meet the demand.

Johnny Richardson, manager of Orange County's purchasing and contracts division, says the county tried to make the contract process as open and objective as possible, and had "numerous meetings" with "as many of the taxi operators as we could determine."

Ripert, however, says county officials advised the independents to organize and bid on the contract, giving them six months to do so. But two months later, the drivers were told not to bother because the contract was going to Mears and a chosen few, he says.

Richardson says that promising visitors a standard of cab service should actually draw more jobs to the area, compensating for the loss of the independent drivers.

"I believe what this will do in the long term is maintain the jobs that we have," he says. "We are locked in a very fierce competition with other convention centers throughout the country, so every little margin we have, we have to take advantage of it."

Even if the county is so concerned with taxi standards, a fix shouldn't require an elaborate contract that puts many out of business, Ripert says. If county commissioners can't regulate a few hundred cab drivers, he argues, why do they consider themselves competent to govern Orange County's 1 million residents?

Stewart says that drivers were told three months ago to get organized and submit a bid for a piece of the convention center business, but that only the drivers working under Sharp did so.

"There was nothing anybody could do about it," she says. "You can't just give a bid out to somebody that didn't bid.

"I feel that everybody has a right to work, but they have to follow a process."

Stewart says the group gathered to wave signs at county commissioners is the most organization she's seen out of the independent drivers.

"I just think they need to get organized. That's my message to them," she says.

That's what drivers say they are doing, despite being at a number of tactical disadvantages. The vast majority of taxi drivers, like Ripert, are from Haiti, he says. Rosario says many drivers are poorly educated, and many are veterans or single parents. Mears and its executives, in contrast, have the financial wherewithal to make big contributions to city and county officials. They've given more than $120,000 to local and state political campaigns in the last 15 years, while other cab companies haven't had the money to make major contributions.

That previous protests, such as a gathering of about 100 drivers outside Orlando City Hall in 2008, brought little result doesn't discourage Ripert.

"We will not stop fighting," he says.


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