By Steve Wilson / October 14, 2016
Running afoul of anti-competitive taxi regulations has its consequences in Jackson and can even result in your arrest.
“Taxi” Tim Burnham found that out the hard way.
Burnham owns a cab company and said his drivers have been followed by drivers from the five rival
Jackson-based taxi companies and even had an old shoe thrown in their direction. The reason: He doesn’t have a license to operate a taxi service in Jackson and says he can’t get one because of the Byzantine rules that govern licensing, including giving existing cab companies veto power over new licenses.
On Sept. 13, drivers upped the ante. Dave Willis Jr. and Burrell Brooks filed affidavits with the Municipal Court of Jackson alleging that they witnessed Burnham violating the city’s taxi ordinance on two occasions.
Burnham and several of his drivers had just finished transporting a wedding party to the capital city on Sept. 26 when they saw a Jackson Police car pull up in the parking lot, accompanied by drivers from a Jackson-based taxi company. He was then arrested on two counts of violating the city’s taxi ordinance.
He argues that his transportation contracts, several of which are in Jackson, are not in violation of the city’s ordinance and that his company doesn’t provide standard, metered taxi service to Jackson.
The city sees it differently. Burnham could face a fine of up to $1,000 for each of the two counts against him when he makes his first court appearance Jan. 24.
The barriers to entry in the Jackson market, which has the highest taxi rates in the state, are steep for an entrepreneur like Burnham. The city’s 15-year-old taxi ordinancerequires owners to obtain a license — but to get that license, an applicant needs at least eight cabs, with at least four housed in the city limits, and must jump through a number of other hoops as well.
“They’re keeping us out,” Burnham said. “You’d think with Uber and Lyft, they’d want someone local who can compete.”
If a company has 10 or more cabs, all must be housed in garages within city limits. A cab company also must have someone available 24 hours a day to answer service calls and drivers must follow a dress code. Also, the ordinance bans cabs from carrying outside advertisements, something that Burnham uses to add to his revenues.
Burnham already has eight cabs that operate in the two counties — Rankin and Madison — that surround Jackson and also serves Hinds County residents outside the city limits. He said he’d expand to 12 cars if a revised ordinance would lower the barriers to entry for a startup like his. He also charges 30 percent less than the city’s mandated rate of $3 per mile.
Getting a taxi license in Jackson isn’t an easy process. First, the city’s transit department has to review an application for what the ordinance calls a “certificate of public necessity and convenience.”
If the application passes that hurdle, it moves to the Transportation Permit and Review Committee, which decides whether the addition of a new cab company is necessary to the city’s residents. The city’s existing cab and limousine companies have two seats on the committee, along with representatives of the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority, Jackson Police Department and city planning department.
The applicant receives a hearing where the committee takes into consideration the number of vehicles for hire in operation in Jackson, the experience of the applicant, and the condition of the applicant’s equipment. The committee can either recommend or deny the application.
If the licensee passes the first two steps, the Jackson City Council has the final say on whether a license can be awarded.
The regulations have already drawn a lawsuit from a pair of taxi drivers — John Davis and Shad Denson — who say their attempts to set up their own cab companies have been thwarted by the regulations. The lawsuit was filed in March in Hinds County Chancery Court by the Mississippi Justice Institute, and the last hearing in the case was earlier this week. According to their attorney and Mississippi Justice Institute director Mike Hurst, they are awaiting the judge’s decision on a pair of motions by the city of Jackson. The first would dismiss the drivers’ request for summary judgement and the second would halt the discovery process in the case.
‘A regulated industry’
While entrepreneurs try to break into the existing system, efforts to overhaul it are moving slowly.
The Jackson City Council’s Planning Committee held its fourth meeting on the issue Oct. 6, but still doesn’t have a draft ordinance ready for presentation to the seven-member city council.
Jackson attorney Bob Waller, who owns Veterans Cab, told the committee that the arrival of networked transportation companies like Uber and Lyft has cut his business in half.
“This is a regulated industry and for the public to be serviced, there have to be certain things that happen,” Waller said. “There’s a reason we’re set up the way we’re set up and that’s to protect the public. I ask that y’all be careful in changing this ordinance and adding more companies to give more competition to make business service better. It doesn’t do that. It makes it worse.”
City Councilman Kenny Stokes said at the meeting that the planning committee will convene again to discuss proposed changes to the ordinance, including streamlining the permitting process, eliminating requirements for 24-hour service and reducing the number of cars required for a taxi service.