A group of Ethiopian-American cab drivers looking to start their own Nashville taxi company still lack an answer on the fate of their business venture.
Volunteer Taxi, conceived as Nashville’s first driver-owned cab company, received preliminary approval in December after the Metro Transportation Licensing Commission voted to increase the city’s current 585-limit on taxi permits  by 88, lifting the total number of authorized cabs in Nashville to 673.
The commission agreed to give 61 of the additional permits to Volunteer Taxi, and split the remaining permits among other cab companies. But the vote was contingent on funding for an additional cab inspector in Mayor Karl Dean’s operating budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year.
As the mayor’s proposed operating budget is presently constructed, an additional $61,800 to hire a new inspector is not set aside. Dean’s budget goes before the Metro Council for final approval in June.
“Our expectation is it’s not going to be there,” said Metro’s transportation licensing director Brian McQuistion, who has maintained an additional inspector is needed to oversee the operations of more taxis.
McQuistion’s department currently employs three inspectors. He has said they are already stretched.
But the mayor’s office downplayed the connection between the budget and the authorization of additional Nashville taxis –– a stance that should give hope to organizers of Volunteer Taxi.
“We don’t believe this is necessarily a budget issue,” Mayor’s Office press secretary Bonna Johnson said, adding that the administration also doesn’t believe funding for inspectors is necessarily a prerequisite to handle additional cabs.
Johnson pointed to an ongoing Metro-commissioned study, which a consulting group is performing to analyze Nashville’s taxi, livery and limousine services in preparation for the 2013 opening of Music City Center. After the new convention center opens, Nashville could require additional taxis to serve an anticipated bump in visitors.
Announced in March, the study’s completion was expected to take 90 days.
“The study is looking at a number of issues, including staffing, and will make recommendations,” Johnson said.
Volunteer Taxi supporters –– which include legal counsel and a lobbyist –– have suggested that the taxi-permit fee, currently $255, be bumped to $320 to offset the cost of an additional inspector.
The Metro Council’s Minority Caucus, led by At-large Councilman Jerry Maynard, is among the groups supporting Volunteer Taxi’s push.
“Although there may not be monies in the mayor’s budget to increase [the transportation licensing commission’s] budget, we’ve got to wait until the consultants submit their report,” Maynard said.
Maynard added he would like to wait to see whether the mayor decides to “restructure” the transportation licensing commission following controversy involving licensing inspectors’ use of false police badges to pose as police officers .
“I will not speak for the mayor, but as a councilman at-large, I want to see a restructure,” Maynard said.