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Hot under the collar
City Council implements controversial taxi rules
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A DISCUSSION about a new taxi ordinance turned contentious at the Savannah City Council’s Sept. 11 meeting.

Taxi drivers will now be required to wear identifiable uniforms. That is just one of the changes taxi companies and drivers must make to comply, but it’s the one that prompted the most heated discussion.

Companies also must have a listing in the Yellow Pages so that customers will be able to reach them. Drivers will no longer be able to smoke in taxis between fares -- in fact, smoking in taxis is prohibited at all times.

The purpose of the ordinance is to improve taxi service for customers. City staff worked with taxi owners and drivers for two years to hammer out the changes, but apparently didn‘t reach everyone.

A.J. Garnes, owner of a local cab company, who identified herself as representing the non-profit Savannah Regional Transportation and Hospitality Association, wasn’t happy.

“We have not been included in any of the meetings or submission of ideas, even when we submitted two petitions,” Garnes said, adding that she e-mailed Alderman Van Johnson 27 times without getting a response.

“I did meet very briefly with Alderman Osborne, but she referred us to the Chamber of Commerce,” Garnes said. “Just about all of the aldermen have received all of our e-mails or letters. I’ve gotten no response, except from Alderman Sprague, who suggested I stop complaining.”

Even Alderman Jeff Felser came under fire, even though he approached Garnes about the issue at a union picnic a year ago. “However, I haven’t heard anything from you since,” she told Felser.

Garnes told the council that forcing drivers to wear uniforms is illegal and would be impossible to enforce. She also said getting a landline to have a Yellow Pages listing is “antiquated” in a world of e-mail and Web pages.

City Manager Michael Brown said the city first addressed deportment of cab drivers several years ago. “We tried to make those requirements at a high standard, and I believe for the most part, we achieved that,” he said. “Nevertheless, the ordinance is indefinite.

“There are people who wear tank tops and T-shirts and shorts,” Brown said. “It’s not a pleasant experience to sit in a cab with a driver who has body odor and is wearing a tank top.

“We’re simply saying they have to wear a shirt with a collar,” he said. “It’s not expensive today to have a shirt that has a collar. It’s not expensive for people to comply with good basic cleanliness.”

Garnes kept insisting her group had no notification of meetings, but the aldermen insisted that several meetings were held over the past two years and that she was clearly notified.

“The issue goes beyond whether or not someone was invited,” Mayor Otis Johnson said. “The issue is, are these reasonable requirements? If they aren’t, send the staff back to the drawing board. If say are, we need to vote on it and be done with it.”

Garnes persisted, saying at one point, “You’re not going to be able to legislate class. It’s time to stop being close-minded. No other city requires uniforms. It’s against the law.”

At that point, the mayor lost his patience. “I’ve tried to be polite to you and you’ve pushed my buttons,” he told Garnes. “If you don’t like it, take us to court.”

Alderman Cliffton Jones cast the lone dissenting vote. Aldermen Edna Jackson and Tony Thomas were absent to attend a conference for city officials.

To offset the cost of implementing the changes, taxi companies can now use rooftop advertising. A taxi fuel surcharge ordinance also was approved to offset rising fuel prices.

The surcharge will allow companies to charge passengers a $1 fee per trip when gas prices are between $3.40 and $4 per gallon, and a $2 fee when prices rise above $4. The surcharge will be determined using the American Automobile Association’s Southeast regular gas average.

The surcharge will expire in March. At that time, the Consumer Price Index will adjust rates automatically and will reflect increasing fuel costs.

A proposed ordinance that would require taxi companies to provide one handicapped accessible tax for every 10 taxis in its fleet was deferred to the Oct. 23 meeting.

The request for that ordinance was made by the Savannah-Chatham Council on Disability Issues and Chatham Area Transit as part of community transportation priorities. It would be phased in over five years to allow companies to replace taxis on their usual schedule.