Permitted taxis in Nashville could increase from 585 to 673, paving the way for the city’s first driver-owned cab company, but the scenario would require additional funding in the next budget for one of Metro’s smallest departments.
The Metro Transportation Licensing Commission voted Tuesday to increase the 585-limit on cab permits by 15 percent, contingent on the ability to increase staffing to carry out additional cab inspections. The vote, which requires new cabs be hybrid, included approval of Volunteer Taxi, a proposed cab company spearhead by 61 Ethiopian Americans.
For members of Volunteer Taxi, the commission’s vote means six more months of waiting. Commissioners won’t known until June, when the Metro Council votes on a 2012-2013 fiscal year budget, whether funding to staff new employees is granted. The next budget begins July 1.
“It’s little bit overwhelming,” said Volunteer Taxi lead organizer Delelegn Ambaw, adding his group still needs to “digest” the decision.
Brian McQuistion, director of the transportation licensing commission, told The City Paper his department operates on an approximate annual budget of $460,000. He estimated two new cab inspectors, totaling perhaps an additional $100,000, would be required for the cab increase.
As part of the commission’s vote, a study is to analyze taxi fees structures employed by comparable municipalities. Cab companies in Nashville pay annual fees of $75 and quarterly fees of $45 to the licensing commission. Increasing those figures, requiring Metro Council approval, could generate additional revenue.
In addition to granting pending approval to Volunteer Taxi, commissioners Tuesday approved a new taxi company called Green Cab. The two new companies would split 76 taxi permits. The commission also approved 12 additional permits for four existing cab companies.
Volunteer Taxi organizers, many foreign-born, have already alleged old cab bosses have fired them from their jobs for conspiring to launch the start-up business. They fear future firings now that their proposal has preliminary approval.
“The threat is real,” Ambaw said. “They may retaliate.”
These foreign-born drivers, unable to unionize, hope to reduce their 14-hour workdays and supply health benefits to employees by starting their own company. This is achievable, they say, through eliminating weekly payments they deliver to Nashville’s five existing companies to use their logos and business infrastructure.
Attorney Paul Soper, legal counsel for Volunteer Taxi, said he would explore asking the commission to institute a moratorium on firing cab drivers until the next fiscal year. He said he’s optimistic the city can find funding for additional cabs.
“The fees haven’t been adjusted in a long time,” Soper said. “We have a lot of council people in our corner who understand the need for this company to succeed.”
Backers include the 10 members of the Metro Council’s Black Caucus, which announced its support for Volunteer Taxi in a letter sent to the commission Tuesday. The caucus called the proposal an “opportunity to make history for our city.”
“We offer our support to aid you in eliminating any funding and staffing concerns that create an impediment to awarding permits to Volunteer Taxi,” the letter reads.
Additional funding is the key. As it stands, transportation licensing employees, few in numbers, say they already have trouble inspecting Nashville’s 585 permitted cabs.
“The balloon is full of air,” one inspector explained.