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The anonymous message showed up in the voice mail of World Class Limousine last month. "It's good you run black cars," the caller said, "because you're going to need them for the funeral."
"I expected some flak over this, but not to this extent," says Major Marcks, the operator of World Class. Marcks and his associate, Arnold "Andy" Poppenberg III, owner of Denver Lincoln Limousine, are waging a frustrating battle to bring tougher standards to Denver's booming -- and highly competitive -- limousine business.
"The fact is, you've got limousine companies out there that aren't following the rules," Poppenberg says. "It's hard for me to follow the rules when most of the others aren't."
A 1993 Westword story detailing Denver cabbies' troubles with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission.
Marcks and Poppenberg have contacted a laundry list of state and federal regulators, asking questions about "stretch conversions" -- luxury sedans purchased from a dealer, then chopped and extended by custom coach-builders ten to twenty feet beyond their original length so that they can accommodate from ten to sixteen passengers. The pair claim that most of the mega-limos rolling through the metro area are improperly registered, costing the state and local counties thousands of dollars in lost taxes and fees. And some of the monsters, they say, may actually be unsafe to operate.
"Some of these vehicles don't comply with federal safety standards," Poppenberg insists. "With some of them, you park on a hill at thirty degrees and the parking brake can't hold the weight after five minutes."
State officials acknowledge that Marcks and Poppenberg have some cause for complaint. Thanks to a glitch in the enforcement process, it appears that several stretch-limo operators in the state have paid less than they should in registration fees, which are based on the vehicle's taxable value and weight. The exact dollar amount of lost revenues is unknown.
But federal regulators, citing a lack of supporting data, are skeptical of the claims that stretch limos are unsafe. Longer limos must be properly modified, they say, to deal with the additional weight -- for example, by installing heavy-duty brakes. Still, there are no reports of super-stretches running amok this side of a Stephen King novel.
"More length doesn't make something inherently unsafe," says Tim Hurd, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). "Otherwise, a tractor-trailer would be unsafe. There's no reason for people hiring a limousine to be worried that they're endangering themselves. In general, the industry works with us; they're not about to endanger their customers."
Although they've managed to bend some ears at the Colorado Public Utilities Commission and the state Department of Revenue, Poppenberg and Marcks know they aren't going to win any popularity contests among their colleagues. Both men say they've received anonymous threats and have reported them to the police. But the ride could get even bumpier as they push the PUC to take a closer look at the stretch craze -- a segment of the limousine market that has taken off in recent years as clients who rent limos only for proms and other special occasions seek increasingly novel and outlandish wheels.
Poppenberg became aware of irregularities in registering stretch vehicles when he learned that the license plates for his own new 120-inch stretch Lincoln would cost him roughly $1,200. He requested registration records on stretches owned by several of his competitors and discovered that their owners were paying considerably less. The vehicles in question had been registered as sedans at the time of purchase and never reassessed, even though they had subsequently undergone extensive modifications. In some cases, limos that were much longer and more valuable than his had been charged several hundred dollars less in fees and taxes.
"The trick is to buy the vehicle here, get it registered and then send it out to be extended," Poppenberg says. "It's not right. If I have to pay $1,200 for my plates to operate a commercial vehicle, everyone else who operates a similar vehicle should have to pay the same amount."
"There are a hell of a lot of people running stretches that aren't registered properly," says Marcks. "We're conservatively estimating that 80 percent of them in the state are that way."
State law requires owners to re-register vehicles when they add permanent "mounted equipment" weighing more than 500 pounds. But the Motor Vehicle Division deals in paperwork and rarely inspects a vehicle before renewing a registration. The PUC conducts annual inspections of limousines but rarely looks at the registration issue.
Poppenberg's protests didn't go unnoticed. "He's got valid concerns," says Linda Huyghebaert, an administrator with the state Department of Revenue. "We almost never have a reason to say to a registrant, 'Has this vehicle been modified?' This goes across several agencies. Each one of us has our own little niche, but unfortunately, we haven't figured out the mechanism to get it resolved."
But since Poppenberg started making his inquiries, Huyghebaert has met with representatives of the PUC and the state highway patrol to discuss the problem. "We're trying to work it so that everybody is treated equally," she says.
Lee Smith, chief of transportation for the PUC, says his agency will be looking closer at registrations now that it's been notified of the problem. "If we see one that's a limo and is registered as a sedan, we'll probably pass it over to Revenue," Smith says. "What they do with it is up to them."