Bad Trip

Airport limo drivers vow to sneer at CEOs.

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The room inside Tony K's Bar and Grille in Berea is thick with cigarette smoke, but attorney Kevin Payne's words cut through it with the precision of a man who knows his audience.

"I cannot emphasize enough that you are running out of time," Payne says to the three dozen limousine drivers seated before him. "This is part of a grand scheme. Permit fees are being raised across the board. It's clear that there's a drive from the mayor's office to push this through as soon as possible."

Payne is representing the Ohio Limousine Owners Association (OLOA) in its bid to derail proposed fee increases for limousines, passenger vans, and shuttle buses doing business at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. It's clear from the March 22 meeting at Tony K's--where the parking lot full of shiny black stretch limousines gave it the odd appearance of a mafia convention--that the limousine owners are angry.

The focus of their anger is Mayor Michael R. White and Solomon Balraj, a mayoral appointee whose jurisdiction as director of port control includes Hopkins Airport. The limousine drivers are afraid proposed changes will drive many of them out of business.

What's more, they claim the proposed increases will threaten the city's bid to remake itself as a tourist and convention hotspot. In fact, the limo drivers guarantee it.

"There's not going to be any conventions if the first person [tourists] come in contact with is mad," says Jeff Goebel, vice president of Hopkins Airport Limousine and Shuttle Services Inc. in Brook Park. "[Airport authorities] give us ninety days notice that they'll be tripling our rates? It's just not right."

Limousines, vans, and shuttle buses currently pay a $500 annual fee to do business at the airport. Balraj proposed in February that fees for courtesy vans and charter buses increase to $1,000. He wants limousines to pay $1,500, passenger vans $2,000, and shuttle buses working for off-airport parking lots $5,000.

Balraj also wanted the transportation companies to buy separate permits for every vehicle they use at the airport. He has since backtracked and will allow the current system--wherein operators buy a few permits and use them interchangeably--to remain.

Balraj says the changes are simply an effort to keep the airport competitive by spreading out operating costs from the airlines to all the companies that do business in the airport. He notes the $500 fee has not increased in 21 years.

"Entities that have a commercial interest, we charge them rent or a service fee," says Balraj, who became director of port control eight months ago, in the midst of the airport's $600 million expansion. "It's tied to recovering the cost of operating here."

He says the proposed fee increase was calculated by looking at what other airports charge. "It's unfortunate the fee hasn't been changed since 1978," Balraj says. "We're trying to get the fee in 1999 dollars."

Hotel and shuttle-bus operators are also upset about the fee increase, but seem more inclined to accept it as an inevitable cost of doing business. "It would be detrimental," says Tom Rousher, general manager of the Holiday Inn in Westlake, which operates a complimentary shuttle for its guests. "It looks like it pretty much gives the airport authority to raise fees whenever they feel like it."

Richard Saponari, president of the OLOA, is willing to accept a small increase, but says the size and timing of the changes would devastate the local transportation industry. What also angers Saponari, other limo owners, and some members of Cleveland City Council is that the port authority initially tried to implement the fee increases by fiat, rather than getting approval from council.

"They thought they could increase the fees by executive order, by their whim," says Councilman Martin J. Sweeney, referring to Hopkins Airport officials. Sweeney, who is vice chairman of the aviation committee and represents the ward that includes Hopkins Airport, adds: "Then they discovered legislation was needed."

So emergency legislation was introduced last month by the White administration, but not to increase the fees to Balraj's suggested levels. Instead, the administration would transfer the power to set the airport fees from city council to the director of port control. The director of port control's proposal would then have to get approval from the city's board of control, which consists of the mayor and his departmental directors.

"Keep in mind, as the ordinance is proposed, all it speaks of is giving the port control authority to set fees as it sees reasonable," Payne told the OLOA, noting there's no guarantee fees won't be increased in the near future.

That's what scares the limo drivers most. They say, once the power to increase fees is shifted from city council to the board of control, they'd be at the mercy of the mayor's appointees. And that's why they're organizing to scuttle the proposal floating through city council.

"It's become a political football between city council and the mayor's office," charges one limousine driver. "The port authority will be able to regulate the fee as they see fit--talk about opening up a can of worms for corruption."

If not corruption, then certainly for conflicts of interest.
Several limousine owners noted that the mayor's best friend, Nate Gray, was awarded a $14.7 million contract to operate shuttle buses between the airport and a new off-site car rental center. Gray, who served as best man at two of White's weddings, also has a stake in parking lots around the airport through a joint venture between his company, Etna Parking, and APCOA Standard Parking Inc.

What's more, the mayor selected Arnold Pinkney to partner with Chelm Properties Inc. to develop a commercial park near the airport. Pinkney, one of White's closest allies, was convicted of having an unlawful interest in a public contract in 1984, while serving on the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority. He was later pardoned for the fourth-degree felony by then-Governor Richard Celeste--after he ran Celeste's two gubernatorial campaigns.

But such political intrigue is not what interests the limo drivers most. Instead, they feel the increases are being forced upon them without any consultation.

"This fee will reduce the availability and quality of service," says Saponari, a Wayne Newton look-alike with gold jewelry and jet-black hair and moustache. He paints a picture where politicians, executives, and other power brokers land in Cleveland and then wait impatiently for their limo. "They'll say, 'What do you mean, I have to stand on the curb in 20-below weather?'" Saponari says.

"We're not gonna lay down for this," he promises. "We're gonna fight it."

Mike Tobin may be reached at [email protected].

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