Boise Mayor Dave Bieter was pleasantly surprised when he received some early positive feedback on his newest initiative: improving the level of taxi service in Boise.
"It appears that we have more consensus on this than I had originally thought. I'm quite pleased," said Bieter on Dec. 20, after listening to a briefing from city staff detailing early feedback on proposed taxi ordinance amendments. The changes include a requirement to accept debit and/or credit cards, improvement of vehicle quality, limiting personal use of taxis and a new rule that drivers be able to understand English.
The "English only" requirement was the result of several complaints over the course of a few years to the mayor's hot line.
"We had a number of people call us to say they weren't able to fully communicate with their driver," said Adam Park, communications director for the mayor. "As a result, passengers were taken way out of their way and had to pay extra."
But rather than appear heavy handed with a change that seemed to be targeted at new Americans with limited English skills, Bieter's staff reached out to groups serving as advocates for refugees, who quite often turn to taxi driving for their first American jobs.
"We were very impressed by the level of cooperation from the agencies," said Theresa McLeod, assistant to Bieter. Through dialogue with several refugee resettlement agencies, McLeod said the "English only" ordinance would be revised to require taxi drivers to "understand" English, rather than "read and write" English.
"Quite often, they can speak English before they're able to read or write. That's why we're inclined to make the test verbal," said McLeod, referring to a licensing test to be administered by the city. "The English Language Center [on River Street] will be very helpful and, of course, drivers will be able to utilize the English language resources at the main library."
Outgoing City Council Member Alan Shealy said he liked what he heard at the Dec. 20 meeting. As of January 1, Shealy stepped down, meaning he won't have a final vote on the proposed changes.
"My main concern here was about the English language requirement, Honestly, I don't know how difficult it is. You see I only learned English once in my life," said Shealy with his typical dry wit. "And it was a very gradual process."
Stakeholders even had some initial conversation about installing GPS systems in each cab but according to McLeod they "weren't comfortable with the expense."
In fact, an informal survey of stakeholders taken by city staff indicated that 92 percent of those asked supported the "English only" requirement. But some of the other ordinances might be a tougher sell, at least to some of the taxi drivers who spoke to BW.
"We're not being inclusive, we're being exclusive with these laws," said John Christensen of Gold Taxi, one of the city's smaller cab companies. Christensen is one of only two drivers for Gold.
The City Clerk's Office counts 58 taxi companies in Boise that have only one car in the fleet. Ten companies have two to four cars, one company has seven cabs, and three companies have 10 or more cars in their fleets.
"I do believe the market is over saturated," said Christensen. "But obviously, the marketplace has deemed that it's worth it to have this many cabs. If we're not making money, we're not going to do this."
Christensen is a father of one and enjoys the flexible schedule that driving affords. He has a fair amount in common with Dereck McGhan, another driver competing for fares who is also a dad and drives for ABC Taxi. McGhan describes himself as a tradesman who worked in construction for years before he began driving a cab eight months ago.
"The economy is tough, and it's difficult to find work right now," said McGhan, who pays ABC $200 per week to lease a cab.
McGhan isn't too upset with the proposed ordinances but can see how a credit/debit card requirement could cut into cab drivers' profits. McGhan already accepts credit cards for fares but worries that it will become increasingly expensive for drivers.
"I think the city should be partly responsible for supplying [card machines] to taxi companies," said McGhan, who sometimes has to pay 3 percent in fees per card transaction. "We pay enough in fees. They should provide [the machine] so we don't get ripped off in the process."
Christensen echoed McGhan's feelings on the credit/debit card requirement.
"You shouldn't be able to tell somebody that they have to take a 2- to 5-percent ding on their hard work," said Christensen. "If somebody got in my cab and wanted to go from Boise to Five Mile [Road] and they gave me cash, it would be $15. If they gave me a credit card, it's not $15 to me, it's more like $12.50 because I have to pay the bank and credit card processing fees. We can't charge extra. No matter what I do, it cuts in and I'm not getting my fair and equal fare based on the Boise City rates."
Christensen said rather than the city requiring a taxi operator to accept credit and/or debit cards, it should ultimately be a business decision.
"I don't have a problem taking credit cards but making somebody take credit cards--that decision should be made by the business, not the city of Boise," he said.
The month of January will be critical in the professional lives of Christensen, McGhan and scores of other Boise cab drivers. The first reading of the newly revised taxi ordinance amendments is scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 10, and a second reading is slated for Tuesday, Jan. 24. If all goes as planned, a third reading, public hearing and ultimate vote by the City Council is scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 31.