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Spelman looks for flexibility as taxi agreements head to finish line

Monday, May 3, 2010 by Michael Kanin

The Council moved closer Thursday to extending the franchise agreements for Austin’s taxi cab firms, voting on second reading to renew them, with a third reading still to come. However, Council Member Bill Spelman remained a holdout, concerned about locking the city into a long-term agreement during which problems with the cab companies could not be addressed.


The Council voted 6-1 to move the franchise renewal process forward, with Spelman the only member voting against the measure. He hopes to make some changes before the final vote, set for May 27.


Spelman questioned city staff over how far officials could go if presented with negative information about a franchise and also suggested that the data the city collects about its cab firms is incomplete.


He asked what “performance measures” the city used to evaluate its franchisees. Austin’s Director of Transportation Robert Spillar said that the city assess whether the organizations are following current regulations, any changes to their governing ordinances, and “on-time payment of their fees.”


Spillar asked Transportation Regulatory Manager Morris Poe to brief Spelman on current regulations, which he said number about 100. Poe pointed out some of the requirements, including those that franchises operate 24/7 and 40 percent of each franchise’s drivers be owner-operators. He also said they reviewed refusal of service issues, meter rate compliance, vehicle conditions, and whether or not a firm was up-to-date on its fee schedule.


Spelman responded with a brief about how Los Angeles collects information about its franchises. “They have formed a thing called a Taxi Cab Service Index which is their primary measure of how well each of the franchise holders is doing at providing good customer service and being a good corporate citizen,” he said. “Most of the points provided in the Taxi Cab Service Index (are for) what they refer to as on-time service response.”


He asked Poe if the City of Austin had ever collected such information. Poe said no, adding that his department “just (doesn’t) have the staff to do that.”


Spelman summed up his case, saying “My concern about this particular decision before us is that we’re locking ourselves into a five-year program where nothing substantial would change.”


He emphasized his point by asking the city legal staff, “If we were to, over the course of the five-year period, develop some more effective means that was practical from our point of view for determining the extent to which the franchise holders were providing good customer service…would we have the legal authority to add this to our franchise agreement?”


The law department’s Gregory Miller told him that he believed that “as a general matter, we could frame some standards and put them in the code in such a way that wouldn’t constitute a substantial change,” he said. However, Miller said he was unsure whether the city could make substantial changes, such as cutting a franchise’s cabs.


The question of just how much the city can change the franchise agreements within the law has been at the center of the extension debate. Though the extensions would bring each of the three franchise agreements to a 2015 expiration, officials are planning for a detailed report about taxi service that could be ready in two years.


Spelman said he was optimistic that he would be able to work out an agreement that was better that what was currently on the table before the items come back to Council for a third and final read on May 27.


Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez office noted that the Council had already issued a resolution that had expressed their collective concerns, and asked for a response from the community.


That resolution directed City Manager Marc Ott and the Urban Transportation Commission to work with stakeholders and make recommendations on a host of issues. These eventually grew to include broad questions about the franchise agreements and driver pay. Martinez’ office also said that it might be tough to find the legal line in adjustments made to the franchise agreements.

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