City taxi ordinance draws scrutiny, will be revisited in new year
Dickinson city commissioners discussed on Tuesday night an ordinance that's been on the books since January of 2016 that regulates taxis and shuttles within the Dickinson area.
The issue is that the law is not being enforced. Only two citations came up from the Dickinson Police Records department — one of which was later dismissed.
Local business owner Marvin Dill, CEO of Camajur Services Sober Bus, said the ordinance—which requires local companies to have insurance policy limits of not less than $1,000,000 for injury or damage in one accident—has forced him to increase his rates and has hurt his business.
"It's not fair because they are not enforcing it," Dill said. "We had to double our insurance costs because we had to double our insurance. I have complained to the police, I have complained to the sheriff's department, I have complained to the city administrator and all for naught because they have not enforced this ordinance. How can you have an ordinance that is to protect the public for safety if you can't enforce it?"
The commission discussion
Janilyn Murtha, city attorney for the city of Dickinson, started discussion on the ordinance, Ordinance no. 1583, amending article 36.04, by asking the commission to choose courses of action:
"What would you like us to do? Would you like us to bring forward a repeal of the taxicab ordinance? Would you like us to bring forward amendments to the taxicab ordinance?" Murtha said. "Should one of our options be to petition our legislators ... maybe there shouldn't be a statewide prohibition (on regulating transportation company networks)?"
The state legislation she referred to is a law governing transportation company networks, like Uber or Lyft. According to the state law:
"A political subdivision may not impose a tax on, or require a license for, a transportation network company or a transportation network company driver or subject a transportation network company to the political subdivision's rate, entry, operational, or other requirements."
Mayor Scott Decker's stance was simple:
"I have stated in the past that if we have something on the books that is unenforceable then it shouldn't be on the books," he said. "Either we need to amend it so we can enforce it ... or we need to strike it from our books."
Other commissioners seemed to favor seeing if the state Legislature was going to take up the law, which was conflicting with the ordinance.
"I would like to see if this goes to the Legislature this year," Commissioner Carson Steiner said. "If they don't bring it up to the state level, then maybe there's not a problem with it."
Decker said he hadn't heard complaints about Uber.
"I have received no complaints from the public from Uber ... what I have heard is that party buses and limos are operating without licenses," Decker said. "That's my concern: We're limiting. We only have a few individuals adhering to our rules and other people are breaking the law, and we're not enforcing it or it's not enforceable ... so we either need to enforce it or take it off the books."
Steiner said he believed the city's ordinance asked for a higher insurance requirement than the state. Capt. Joe Cianni of the Dickinson Police Department provided the commissioners with details as to why the ordinance was adopted and why the department has had trouble enforcing it.
"We have had multiple complaints about party buses around town, but we've never verified if they are licensed or not," Cianni said. "I think the citizens of Dickinson expect some governmental oversight of taxi services. We put this in place during the boom because anybody and their brother would come to town and slap "Taxi" on their car and start picking up people."
He said the ordinance was the only way "that made sense" to provide that oversight. Decker asked him if they could enforce the license law.
"We cannot," Cianni replied. "The only thing we can verify is if they have the license on their window in a prominently displayed area."
He said that it would require some manner of "sting operation" to ascertain beyond that whether a bus was really licensed.
Commissioner Sarah Trustem expressed doubt that buses were running around town unlicensed.
"I mean, they haven't actually seen anyone operating without a license; this is hearsay. I don't know how far we want to dig into something we don't even know exists," she said. "We've kinda had the battle of the taxi different companies. They throw out a lot of accusations. I don't know how much time it's worth spending."
She asked Cianni if the DPD can check the licenses of buses or taxis they pull over for routine traffic violations, like running red lights, and he confirmed they could. She suggested as well that it might be better to wait for the Legislature to address the conflicting state law.
Commissioner Jason Fridrich spoke to Dill's concerns directly and suggested an openness to lowering the insurance requirements on the city's end.
"In the past, Mr. Dill's complaint was he has a party bus, or a sober bus he calls it ... we've classified that he pays the higher taxi fee, the higher insurance, and the next guy isn't paying the taxi fee, isn't paying the higher insurance," Fridrich said. "I wouldn't be so opposed to relax the insurance requirement if we're higher than the state."
Decker ultimately requested that more information be gathered and the issue be returned to after the new year.
A level field
Commissioner Steiner spoke in further detail to the Press regarding the ordinance and the voiced concerns.
He had said that public safety was the main reason for both the increasing of the insurance rate and the ordinance's creation in the first place—but how can an ordinance that has never been enforced work to the goal of public safety? Steiner said that "a lot of things" are considered risks to public safety, and said that there should be ways to determine which safety concerns are more pressing than others.
As for the issue that the ordinance has a negative impact on local taxis, particularly as Lyft and Uber are coming into Dickinson?
"The intent was to make it a level field for everybody," he said. "When this was brought up there really weren't Uber drivers in town ... now we're going to have to address this ... I don't think there's any responsibility to the loss of revenue, you hate to see a loss of revenue as a result, but again, it comes down to making a level playing field for everybody."
Trustem reiterated that she wants to see more hard data.
"It's very difficult to hash out all of the problems that are seen within the taxi community at a commission meeting with little support besides hearsay," she said. "I think this deserves some more attention on the subcommittee level."
Murtha, speaking with the press some time before the commission meeting, had said this ordinance would have been on the agenda sooner had not another contentious ordinance, the mobile home ordinance, not taken as much time to deal with as it had.
Dill provided public comment at the meeting and said that the ordinance already provided a means of telling if a vehicle was in compliance, naming several companies he alleged were not.
"You were wondering if you have some way to find out if they have a license to operate in the city. It's already in the ordinance," Dill said. "Each taxi must have a taxi identification number issued ... and prominently displayed on the outside of the vehicle taxi ... that is the license that is issued by the city. It is a 6-by-8 white sticker that is supposed to be on the bumper."