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Posted June 3, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Drivers' coalition protests proposed ordinance changes for taxi services

Mike Carter, a driver for Polly's Cab
Mike Carter, a driver for Polly's Cab, sits outside Rouss City Hall in Winchester on Tuesday during a demonstration protesting proposed changes to a city ordinance they say will hurt the local cab industry. Rich Cooley/Daily

By James Heffernan — jheffernan@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER — Taxi service came to a halt for about an hour and a half Tuesday afternoon as drivers protested a proposed change to the city ordinance they say would weaken requirements for new cab companies and invite outside service.

About a dozen cabbies representing four local companies under the name Winchester Taxi Coalition blared their horns while circling Rouss City Hall ahead of a meeting of the community safety and public services committee.

The protesters said the changes would take away the role of the City Council in granting a permit to operate a taxi company within the city limits, effectively reducing the process to a simple background check on the drivers by the local police chief.

Currently the ordinance requires that the chief, as directed by the council, determine if a new cab service is a “necessity,” offers a level of “convenience” and has a Winchester business license in good standing.

Without those added checks, the coalition said, outside companies would be allowed to operate locally with little to no regulation. And they wouldn’t be investing in the community.

“The cab drivers now are local businesses,” said Ben Weber, of Master Media Group, which orchestrated the protest. “They rent or own their office space and their vehicles, their drivers are local, their advertising is local, they pay local taxes, so the money stays here.”

Weber, who was seen carrying an American flag outside City Hall on Tuesday, said the coalition is seeking the same protections enjoyed in other areas of the state, including airports.

“You can’t just drive up to the terminal at Dulles [International Airport] and pick someone up,” he said. “It’s a protected market.”

“It’s also an issue of local public safety, of local officials protecting local drivers,” added Woodstock attorney Bradley G. Pollack, who was on hand Tuesday representing the coalition. “It’s city council’s responsibility to make sure [cab companies] abide by the city’s rules and regulations, just as it is with every city in the commonwealth of Virginia.”

Ron Pruitt, owner of Taxi USA, said when he went to open the company in 1997, he had to appear twice before the council and take an oath before the police chief, as drivers not only provide transportation, they also play a crucial public safety role.

“We have clients ranging from children being taken to and from school to senior citizens,” said Pruitt, whose company answers about 5,000 calls a month. “It’s our job to help be the eyes and ears of the community.”

Pruitt said driver background checks aren’t always enough to ensure safety. He said he randomly tests his company’s 12 drivers for drugs on a regular basis, and expects nothing less than “safe, dependable and courteous service” at all times.

Specifically, the coalition objects to the removal of the words “public convenience” and “necessity” from the title of the certificate to operate a taxi service in Winchester.

“It is a necessity, it is a convenience,” Pruitt said.

The other proposed change would require that an applicant have a valid local business license from the commissioner of revenue and provide proof that all delinquent taxes have been paid.

City Manager J. Brannon Godfrey said the changes are intended to clear up some of the language in the ordinance and will make the certificate requirements “more restrictive, not less restrictive.”

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