Asheville City Council

Price increases are a fact of life. And for cab companies, that means paying more for their vehicles as well as for repairs, tires, insurance — and, of course, fuel. But unlike most businesses, cabbies can’t simply jack up the amount they charge their customers.

In North Carolina, cities have the option of regulating the cab companies that operate within their boundaries. Asheville, like most cities, regulates several aspects of the cab business, including both safety measures and fares. And going into the Asheville City Council’s Sept. 13 formal session, fares hadn’t changed in five years.

Local taxi companies say they’ve been running in the red for some time due to skyrocketing gas prices, and they pleaded with Council for relief.

“We don’t want to go up on it — it is a necessity,” declared Georgia Jefferson of Your Cab II. “We don’t have a choice but to come to you and ask for an increase.”

Spiro Aliferis of A Red Cab Co. voiced similar concerns, saying, “We’re just in a bad situation. … We need help.”

As of last month, Director of Transit & Parking Services Bruce Black told Council, the cost of a gallon of gas had increased by $1.12 since 2000 — and that’s not counting Hurricane Katrina’s effects on gasoline production. Back then, City Council approved a $1.90 “drop charge” and $2 per mile traveled — the first increase since 1988.

This time around, the cab companies were seeking a $3 drop fee and $2.50 per mile, but city staff was recommending an interim increase — a $2.20 drop fee and $2.20 per mile — until staff could factor in Katrina’s impact. “What we are seeking is immediate relief,” he told Council, noting that the city’s figures were based on both last month’s gas prices and the Consumer Price Index.

Council member Jan Davis confirmed that tire prices, at least, go up regularly. “[It’s] supply and demand,” said Davis, who owns a tire dealership. “If [the taxi business] were a regular industry, the rates would be much greater.”

Davis also pointed out that taxis aren’t allowed to pick up fares at the Asheville Regional Airport — thus depriving them of another potential source of revenue. And Council member Joe Dunn, who serves on the Airport Authority board, lamented that fact.

“I really have a problem with the Airport Authority’s attitude toward taxis,” said Dunn. Five years ago, an Airport Authority representative explained to Council that there’s no place for cabs to sit and wait, and that the airport contracts with a shuttle service to provide an option for travelers.

Taxi drivers, meanwhile, maintained that the staff proposal wasn’t enough to make up for years of deficits. The two sides took a 15-minute break to try to reach a compromise, but the attempt was unsuccessful. “We were close, but we can’t get there,” reported Black.

He did ratchet up the staff recommendation to a $2.50 drop charge and $2.50 per mile. But when Council member Terry Bellamy asked the taxi drivers if they thought that was fair, they turned thumbs down.

“We appreciate the help, but it’s not enough,” Aliferis explained. “We are a private enterprise ruled by the city.”

Black told Xpress he’d upped the interim figure because he could see that Council wanted to do more for the cab companies. He said he hopes to have a realistic response to the most recent fuel-price hikes ready for Council within 30 days.

The provisional increase passed on a 4-2 vote, with Bellamy and Dunn opposed. Both said they wanted to hold out for higher rates. Mayor Charles Worley was attending an intercity meeting in Quebec.

Down to the wire?

Late in the meeting, a proposal for a city-run, high-speed-wireless Internet service was shelved after Council member Brownie Newman questioned the way the proposal had been introduced.

Newman wondered why Council was getting its first look at the proposal — put forward by Dunn, Davis and Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower — in a formal session rather than a work session. Newman also noted that both the mayor and Information Technology Director Jonathan Feldman were absent.

“That is our standard process,” he said emphatically.

Davis explained that the item had been included in part because there seemed to be a short agenda. (In fact, however, the meeting lasted six hours and included much laborious discussion of development proposals, which was hampered by a series of split votes.) Davis also said that though he’d expected to be away on vacation and thus miss the Sept. 20 work session, he would change his plans if Council decided to postpone the discussion.

Mumpower, meanwhile, was urging quick action, saying that legislation now before Congress (the Ensign/McCain Broadband Investment and Consumer Choice Act) could affect the city’s ability to create such a utility. But Council member Holly Jones countered that the federal legislation still has a few more hoops to jump through, and passage isn’t imminent.

The politics of the debate soon became clear, however. Back in July, Wally Bowen, executive director of the Mountain Area Information Network, had asked Council for free space on a city-owned tower to set up a wireless network in Asheville. But despite Bowen’s offer to provide free high-speed access to five city community centers, some Council members objected to the nonprofit’s activist political agenda and rejected the measure.

The current proposal, Mumpower explained, came in response to MAIN’s earlier request. “You all had your presentation,” noted Mumpower, apparently addressing Newman and Jones — the only two Council members present who’d supported MAIN’S proposal. “Can we have ours?” (The MAIN request first came before Council at the June 21 work session, three weeks before the July 12 vote.)

As to the proposal’s abrupt appearance on the formal-session agenda, the vice mayor said, “We’re not asking for the Council to approve this issue — just to look at this and direct staff to look at this.” A little while later, however, Mumpower hinted that he was, in fact, looking to Council to take action, saying, “We did not feel we should wait for staff. … Policy decisions should lead the way.”

But a flabbergasted Jones said, “I’ve got whiplash, because policy leaders have rejected 75 percent of what is in here.” Jones explained later that she’d been referring to those Council members who’d opposed MAIN’S plan but were now putting forward a proposal containing many of the same points.

Newman, meanwhile, dismissed Mumpower’s statement and continued to question his intentions in bringing the matter forward.

“We don’t need to instruct Jonathan [Feldman] to put on his thinking cap and tell him to think about the Internet,” Newman declared. “We’re not asking staff to look at all the different models … other than the government getting directly involved in supplying the Internet.”

And even Bellamy, who’d joined Davis, Dunn and Mumpower in voting against MAIN’s proposal, nonetheless worried about the public perception of the way Mumpower’s plan was being handled.

“It’s an issue of process — what it looks like in the community,” said Bellamy. “You don’t like MAIN, so you’re getting ready to do your own [Internet service].”

At that point, an obviously frustrated Davis said he would reschedule his vacation so that Council could discuss the issue at the next work session, and a motion to table the issue passed 4-2. Dunn and Jones voted no — Jones because she didn’t think there was sufficient urgency to make Davis cancel his trip, and Dunn because he opposed the delay.

Shelter from the storm

About 200 families displaced by Gulf Coast flooding have landed in Asheville so far, City Manager Gary Jackson told Council, and the Affordable Housing Coalition is partnering with the local chapter of the American Red Cross to help them find housing.

“I’ve been real impressed with the community opening their arms,” said Jackson, adding that many of these people may never be able to return home.

But while the new arrivals are finding food and shelter, they’ve been frustrated by the lack of information available. Although the Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved funding for refugee assistance, FEMA has not yet defined how the money will be distributed locally. In the meantime, the city has issued bus passes to help those seeking work, reported Jackson.

The Affordable Housing Coalition, noted Bellamy, is accepting donations to support its efforts.

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