By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
With all this going on, it wasn't difficult to stir the drivers to protest and to pressure the county commission. Some asked for a temporary suspension of lease payments, others for the county to issue them their own permits (a perennial request) so they would be free of the taxi lords altogether. The county in turn urged the taxi companies to temporarily lower their lease prices, but balked at issuing hundreds of free permits because it would destabilize the industry's pricing structure.
Once the tourism economy began limping forward again, the hot core of cabbie discontent slowly cooled, eventually dissolving into infighting and the scramble for work. But Peña says the average driver is still getting screwed. "Most taxi drivers don't know anything but to get in the cab in the morning and drive twenty hours," he sighs. "Some of them live in their cabs."
Years ago Dade County and various cities within it issued permits to operate taxicabs inside their respective borders, subject to certain regulations. For instance, Central Cab was the only company allowed to operate in Miami Beach, while other companies had virtual monopolies in other cities or in unincorporated Dade. In 1982 a crafty entrepreneurial legend named Sigmund "Ziggy" Zilber (who owned dozens of permits and a taxi company) persuaded the county to take over regulation of all cabs countywide, and to create a borderless system that let drivers roam wherever the fares were. As a result the taxi permits, which owners purchased for a virtual song in the Fifties, Sixties, and early Seventies, became much more valuable. And the business became a lot meaner. "The industry went to shit," observes one Central Cab driver.
A taxi permit is a commodity that can be bought, sold, and leased by whoever owns it. Since the county controls the number of permits available (currently 1934), and that number doesn't change much from year to year, there's a private market for them. The going rate has risen steadily, from around $29,000 in 1990 to as much as $100,000 today. That means very few drivers, especially new ones, can ever afford their own permit. County rules introduced in 1998 mandate that permits can only be sold to people who are full-time drivers, but there are loopholes that are often abused.
Taxi companies like Yellow Cab, Super Yellow, or Flamingo Taxi lease the permits from the owners and then sublease them to one or more drivers by the twelve-hour shift, by the day, or per week. Aggressive permit owners can and do shop around for cab companies that will offer the highest price, with companies passing along the cost to the drivers. That's the argument the taxi companies made to the county when they were pressured to drop their lease prices -- that permit holders were inflating the lease prices by moving the permits to the highest bidder, knowing that companies needed to keep as many drivers on the road as possible. But some of the whining was more than a little disingenuous -- certain taxi-company proprietors are also permit-holders. Peña thinks the system is rigged in favor of the companies because their principals often contribute to political campaigns and hire high-powered lobbyists like Chris Korge, a lawyer/lobbyist for Yellow Cab.
In Peña's opinion, drivers should be the ones with permits, not rich men like Yellow's Eisenberg, Central's Shvartsman, or the other relative handful of families that own or control through power-of-attorney arrangements a majority of the permits. Drivers account for less than twenty percent of permit owners while hundreds of other permits are owned by people who live all over the county, the state, even in foreign countries. They are routinely renewed each year and can remain active almost indefinitely. A few years ago the county did establish an annual lottery in which licensed drivers compete for about two dozen new permits. Lottery winners pay $15,000 to claim their prize, or $10,000 for drivers who primarily serve inner-city areas.
Peña takes the elevator at 140 W. Flagler to the ninth floor, Consumer Services Department, which houses the Passenger Transportation Regulatory Division. He's instantly recognized by everyone in the office, where he's treated like a good-natured but annoying relative who frequently drops by unannounced. "I need to see Leo," he tells the receptionist.
"Javier, until you shave that beard, you're the enemy," she sasses him. "You look like Fidel Castro backwards."
"Yeah -- ha, ha," he responds automatically, having been teased about his striking, mullah-style facial hair many times. (Some of his fellow taxi drivers call him the Taliban.) His perpetually manic grin and frequent emission of a deep, sarcastic chuckle do nothing to dispel the image of a roguish guerrilla fighting a lost cause.
Eventually Leo Melbourne, a thin, older Jamaican gentleman wearing glasses and a palpable air of resignation, arrives in the waiting area to escort Peña back to his cubicle. Melbourne supervises the code inspectors who watchdog the taxi industry, and thus is a repository for complaints.
Peña starts in on him immediately. "Leo, you know what they're doing at Central ..." He tells Melbourne that operators at Central Cab in Miami Beach are refusing to give drivers proper receipts for the lease payments they make, a violation of county rules. Melbourne explains that the drivers themselves will have to come forward to make the complaint, if they want citations written. Peña points out the drivers are afraid for their jobs, but Melbourne is firm; he can't issue a citation based on third-hand information. He sighs and looks briefly at the motto tacked up in his cubicle: "Revenge is not Justice. Temper Justice with Mercy. Seek Justice Always. Never Revenge."