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Where a dirty limo is a no-no

In Hillsborough County, inspectors vigorously enforce strict standards for limousine service.

By KATHRYN WEXLER
Published September 15, 2003

TAMPA - The offense was in plain view, a brazen violation of rule No. 1: Cleanliness.

A circle of white-speckled bird doo had landed and dried on the hood of a gray Lincoln Town Car, now idling outside Tampa International Airport's red terminal.

The blob was the size of a quarter, but according to the standards Inspector Harry Pasquale enforces, it was nothing less than an affront to the good people of Hillsborough County.

"How you doing, buddy?" Pasquale said to the driver, though the inspector wasn't smiling.

"Didn't you wash the car before you got here?" he chided.

Joe Madi, his face wet with perspiration from the punishing heat, climbed from behind the wheel. He was wearing a green Polo shirt and jeans - another violation.

"I've written you a citation before for not wearing a tie," Pasquale said.

The Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission doesn't mess around. If you want to drive a limousine in this town, your car better be spotless, your hygiene impeccable and your tires irreproachable.

That means drivers wear socks. It means no dents. And it certainly means ties.

"Can I put the tie on now?" offered Madi.

In the last few years, Hillsborough has grown into one of the few counties in Florida that has rigorous standards for limousine service and enforces those rules with vigor.

The requirements have the backing of owners of several limousine companies, who say neighboring counties that require no more than an occupational license should take a lesson from Hillsborough.

Rich Levy, owner of Rich Limousines in Clearwater, said his city needs more oversight.

"We've had some problems over here because of it, like guys that are not the most legitimate people, riding around and picking people up," he said.

Mickey Velilla, owner of Patriot Limousines in Tampa, wishes the commission had funding to hire more inspectors. Drivers of disreputable companies, he said, badly need the oversight.

"These guys have ponytails and are smoking in the car, and the car smells like throw-up," Velilla said. "They give a poor image, not just of our industry, but of Tampa."

But what pleases business owners doesn't always make their drivers happy.

Every day, a team of four inspectors scours the county for chauffeur scofflaws and limousine renegades.

The officials go everywhere limos go: the Channel District, big hotels and downtown theater venues.

In the springtime, prom destinations are a mother lode of violations.

In fall, there are annual inspections of all limos on the road.

And in between, of course, there is the airport - pay dirt.

Pasquale, also a reserve deputy for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, was having none of Madi's counteroffers.

"That's like asking if you'd broken into a car, whether you could get out of the car without me arresting you," scoffed Pasquale, a transportation badge on his belt and a SigSauer pistol in his holster.

Pasquale handed him a notice for a $10 fine and made his way toward a black Lincoln. A clutch of taxi drivers standing curbside eyed Pasquale and exchanged mumbles.

The Hillsborough commission licenses 85 companies to provide luxury vehicles for hire. Many of them are based in other counties but want to be able to cross county lines for business.

Each vehicle has to have its own permit. There are 489 stretch limousines, sedans and luxury sport utility vehicles licensed in Hillsborough County.

Pasquale had just ordered the driver of a black Town Car to open his trunk, where he discovered - much to his displeasure - a fat tire rim.

Get it out before the customer comes, Pasquale ordered, or she'll be going home in a cab.

The passenger is a regular, offered the driver, George Kerbaj. She always - always - puts her luggage beside her, Kerbaj said. Pasquale listened, then decided on a correction report rather than a fine.

Travelers pay a minimum of $40 an hour for limousine service, Pasquale said. They have nice luggage. And they shouldn't have to cope with rubbish like rims in the trunk, a no-no, according to the rules.

"A passenger's going to come to us saying, "They tore my $3,000 Gucci luggage,' and what are you going to do?" Pasquale said. "Then it's a civil matter and everyone's unhappy."

The commission generally fields four or five complaints a week about limousines. Some allege the vehicle was dirty. Others say the driver was rude.

"Our primary job is protecting the traveling public," said Chief Inspector Cesar Padilla.

The commission investigates and has wide discretion to punish. In addition to fines, it can issue correction reports that require drivers to bring in their cars for inspection. It can also yank permits.

And inspectors like Pasquale, who are deputized, can make arrests or issue notices to appear. They say they rarely go to that extent.

What makes inspectors especially mad are unlicensed luxury vehicles - gypsies, as they're called. Telltale signs are dark-tinted windows and a homemade sign stuck to the windshield.

They often have no insurance, Pasquale said. Their rates may be cheaper, he said, standing by the Southwest Airlines exit, but it's Customer Beware.

Bill Jennings, who is manager of Dynasty Limousine in Pinellas County and has a lengthy criminal record spanning ten years, has been turned down for a permit in Hillsborough.

The commission has gone several rounds with Jennings, accusing him of illegally doing business in Hillsborough and treating customers shabbily.

Jennings, who said he has been in the limo business for 20 years, said the commission's zeal has gotten out of hand.

"It's like the Gestapo," Jennings said. "They're trying to control everything. It's supposed to be for public safety, and they're writing up tickets for drivers not shaving, for bird droppings on the cars."

Not everyone is complaining. At least not when Pasquale is within earshot.

Veteran limo driver Donald Riley said the regulations, tightened in recent years, have helped clean up drivers who used to show up scruffy. But it's not easy to comply with every little rule, he started to say.

Riley then shifted directions. He motioned to Pasquale, now standing nearby.

"These guys are tough but they do their jobs," Riley said.

Pasquale noticed a white streak on Riley's black rear fender and pointed it out to him.

Said Pasquale, walking away, "We're kind of sticklers for cleanliness."

- Kathryn Wexler can be reached at wexler@sptimes.com or 813 226-3383.

[Last modified September 15, 2003, 02:01:38]


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