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Wednesday, Oct 18, 2017
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Charges another blow to PTC

TAMPA - Fueled by scandal and controversy, the drumbeat to abolish the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission has been getting louder in recent years. But the indictment of the commission's former chairman, Kevin White, has added more fuel to the fire of detractors who argue the independent agency should be eliminated. "This is one more example, an embarrassing example, of how the PTC has outlived its usefulness," state Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, a longtime critic of the agency, said Wednesday. "This agency has been beset by allegations of corruption for too long." Mandated by state law, the PTC is the only agency of its kind in the state. It regulates taxicabs, limousines, ambulances, tow trucks and other private vehicles-for-hire.
In 1998, Tampa City Councilman Ronnie Mason and council attorney David Carr were indicted on extortion charges related to their entry into the local ambulance business. Prosecutors alleged they used their political clout to make their way into the multimillion-dollar ambulance market. But the case never went to trial. Prosecutors dropped the charges two years later, raising questions about the validity of the case. Mason never surfaced again in local politics, and Carr was eventually fired from his job as attorney.
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More recently,
the Public Transportation Commission has been criticized for hiring a director who didn't meet basic job requirements; hiring a lobbyist who worked as a political consultant for the board's chairman at the time, White; and for running a free electric shuttle bus service out of business. This year, Storms introduced legislation that would have eliminated the PTC, transferring all of its regulatory authority to the county commission, but the proposed bill didn't make it to the Senate floor for a vote before the end of the legislative session. Tampa and members of the Hillsborough County Commission opposed the move, arguing that the county does not have the resources to take over the PTC's responsibilities. Storms said she plans to reintroduce similar legislation ahead of next year's session and has called on Senate President Mike Haridopolos to investigate the embattled agency. White is accused of trading his influence as chairman of the PTC for $10,000 in cash, several steak dinners and a 2003 Lincoln Navigator for his father, Gerald White, who died May 23. The federal charges allege that Kevin White accepted money and gifts in exchange for his efforts to get a towing company certified and on the county's lucrative rotational towing list.
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Mario Tamargo,
the PTC's chief inspector, defends the work of the agency and said he believes it is being "unfairly scapegoated" for the actions of a former commissioner. "Why would you abolish an agency that doesn't depend on tax dollars and that operates within its budget because one guy decides he's going to try to extort money?" he said. Tamargo said the commission "has no influence" over which towing companies get on the rotation list with Tampa police, the Hillsborough County sheriff's office and other agencies. "If they meet the criteria, we certify them," he said. "There's no influence by anyone." To get certified, companies must pay a one-time, $500 filing fee to the agency and complete an application that includes criminal background checks, credit reports and fingerprinting. The application also requires a company to report its financial status, employees' driving histories and a request for a specific number of vehicle permits. The PTC inspects the company's fleet of vehicles to ensure it complies with state laws. Applications are reviewed by the PTC director, who presents it to the commission. If approved by the commission, applicants then apply directly to the law enforcement agencies to get on the list and must pay annual fees for the number of permits approved. The fees are $290 for the first wrecker permit and $75 for each additional vehicle. The Tampa Police Department has about 30 companies on the list and the sheriff's office roughly 40. Plant City Mayor Dan Raulerson, current chairman of the PTC, said he doesn't know why a towing company would try to bribe a commissioner to get certified by the agency. "Anyone that paid Mr. White to guarantee a towing certification is purely stupid," he said. State Rep. Rick Glorioso, R-Plant City, who previously served on the commission, said White's indictment is another example of why the agency should be run by the county. "Putting it under the county would make sure the agency is held accountable," he said.

cwade@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7679
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