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Prom rides bump into legal roadblocks

As business booms, more limo drivers hit road without permit


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Lucky Limousine and Towncar Service chauffeur Sally Donahue checks the cabin of one of the fleets limousines in between calls.The city revenue bureau last week suspended an illegal party bus company for doing business in Portland, a big deal in the city’s crackdown of rogue private-for-hire transportation operators.

“We send a lot of penalty letters, but it’s not often we can shut them down for a really good reason,” says Frank Dufay, administrator of the city’s private-for-hire transportation program.

According to the suspension letter from Portland officials, Beaverton's Exquisite Ride had no authority from the federal government to do interstate travel and had no authority from the state of Oregon to carry more than eight passengers. (Their three vehicles that were permitted were a 14-passenger Hummer and two stretch limousines.)

In addition to those violations, there appears to be a connection between Exquisite and Five Star Limousine, the North Portland company that was shut down after the party bus accident that killed an 11-year-old girl in downtown Portland two years ago. No criminal charges were filed.

Five Star had sold some of its vehicles to Exquisite Ride and removed their Five Star website, as required by the city, ac regulatory division manager for Portland’s Office of Management and Finance.

“But it looks like the Five Star name has reappeared, which is a concern to us,” Butler told the Tribune on Friday. “There’s no evidence the person who ran Five Star is involved in this company, but there is a web presence.”

Google searches for “Exquisite Ride” popped up Five Star’s website instead. And calls to the phone number listed on the Five Star website led to a voicemail identifying the company as Exquisite Ride.

Exquisite Ride owner Don Messenger did not return an email from the Tribune.

The latest regulatory action is just part of Dufay’s efforts to get the message out to parents and teens that they should use only city-permitted party buses, limos and taxis for prom night.

Prom season for Portland-area high schools kicks off on April 26. It’s also the start of the peak season for weddings, wine tastings and other large group activities.

“Rogue” operators without permits who might stay away from Portland the rest of the year will come into Portland for a share of the business, Dufay says.

To that end, he’s issued fliers to the schools and wants the public to be wary.

“Prom night is too important to risk a ruined evening,” reads a flier the revenue bureau targeted to schools and parents. “Don’t take a chance with some of the serious problems that have occurred with unpermitted companies like no-shows, run down vehicles, bad drivers, and surprise extra charges.”

With illegal operators, there’s no evidence of the drivers passing criminal and driving background checks; no proof of liability and vehicle insurance; and no proof of vehicle safety inspections.

According to records obtained by the Portland Tribune, 21 companies continue to operate illegally. Seventeen of those have been fined by the city and remain unpermitted. A total of $16,500 is owed to the city by six companies.

Four of those 21 companies have not yet been fined but have received warnings.

Most of the companies doing business in Portland are legal. They include seven taxi companies, 17 limousine companies; 19 tour companies; 35 shuttle companies; 37 executive sedan companies, and five pedicab companies.

The city keeps a list of its permitted operators at www.portlandoregon.gov/revenue/article/296082.

Few cities require permits

Along with just a handful of U.S. cities, Portland requires city permits for all operators of for-hire taxicabs, executive sedans, limousines, tour vehicles, shuttles, and pedicabs, all of which host events ranging from prom night trips to bachelorette parties.

Portland added the permit requirements for limos and party buses in 2009 as their clientele changed. “It used to be high-end, reservation-only, for special occasions or executives,” Butler says. “It was easy to be self-regulating.”

In recent years there’s been an explosion of limousine use for more casual events like prom, or cruising around on weekends.

City officials also started noticing smaller operators coming into the mix, using just one vehicle and not necessarily with safety checks or liability insurance. The public safety concerns led the City Council to adopt the new regulations amid some resistance by the established companies.

“When you put new regulations into effect, it often takes a while for the industry to adjust,” Butler says.

Portland is the only local jurisdiction that requires the permits, which is why some of the 21 offenders do business illegally, and several are repeat offenders.

“Some are adamant they shouldn’t need one,” Dufay says. “Others figure they can get away with it.”

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Lucky Limousine and other private-for-hire transportation companies find themselves slammed for business this time of year as prom season kicks off. City officials are cracking down on rogue operators who swoop in during the high season without the city-required permits.

Compliance has been difficult

Part of the problem with getting all limo and party buses to comply has been that the enforcement has been weak.

Dufay’s team recently added three specialists to focus on enforcement, but their hands are still tied by the police and city attorney’s office, whom they work with.

The fines for repeat offenders who continue to operate without permits can reach up to $5,000 per violation, which the companies either pay or it goes to a collection agency.

In 2012 the city beefed up the penalty to criminalize the offense, making it “punishable, upon conviction, by imprisonment for not more than six months.” Drivers of unpermitted vehicles may be arrested and unpermitted vehicles are “subject to vehicle towing and impoundment.”

But enforcing those rules is a work in progress.

Butler says her office has been working with police to target the repeat offenders. The city also is working to require permit stickers to be posted on the back of the vehicle as well as the front so police can identify them more easily.

Legal protocols also are being worked out, Butler says: “We have to do this in a systematic way to avoid legal issues. Little by little, the industry is accepting these regulations and realizing they’re not going to go away; we are going to apply more enforcement resources to it. Little by little, we’re bringing more of them into the fold.”

Safety is top concern

Alan Jochim, chief operating officer of Northeast Portland based Lucky Limousine, is thrilled the city is trying to raise public awareness of the permitting requirements.

He says the safety of customers who use those unpermitted companies is a top concern, as is the fact that the rogue operators are undercutting legal operators’ fares.

Every time there’s an accident, like the fatal limousine fire in San Francisco last summer, insurance goes up across the board, Jochim says.

His rose about 10 percent last year, and local fuel costs rose 15 cents per gallon in the past two weeks.

“It’s hard to compete with someone not paying for those permits,” Jochim says. “Every dollar, every penny, is to try to get our business legitimate. ... We’re willing to compete with anybody, as long as were all on the same playing field.”

Jochim is board vice president of the Oregon Livery Association, which represents nine of the city’s 17 permitted private-for-hire transportation companies. For the past year or so he’s been trying to boost representation on the board to have a bigger voice at the city level.

“We were hopeful (enforcement) would be done by (the city) or the police or whoever,” he says. “It hasn’t happened. ... We need a splash in the pond every once in a while to let people know you’re being watched.”

Jochim likens the situation to the food industry’s strict licensing. “The public needs to understand they’re going to a restaurant and the meat hasn’t been inspected by anybody,” he says. “If you’re willing to go and not have an insured company, you pay for that.”