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Taxi Drivers Plead for More Freedom, City Council Recoils

Taxi drivers say the Charlotte City Council is ignoring their pleas for a new system that will let them sever ties with cab companies and operate as independent drivers. The council is working to revise the city's taxi ordinance by mid-summer. Charlotte taxi drivers complain their companies charge them exorbitant monthly fees - as high as $500 $,2000 - for the privilege of working in that company's fleet. City ordinance requires a driver to affiliate with a cab company in order to pick up fares. But members of the Charlotte City Council's community safety committee so far seem unwilling to step in and limit how much a cab company can charge its drivers. "The cab drivers are coming to city council saying, 'You have to protect against the owners of our own company,'" says Councilman Andy Dulin. "You know it's a free society we live in here. If they don't want to be in the cab driving business, they are free to go do something else." Abdi Duale, an airport taxi driver for Nations Cab, says drivers don't really have the choice to switch to a new company because they'll likely lose the right to camp on the airport curb and pick up passengers. The city offers a limited number of airport permits which go to cab companies - not individual drivers. Duale says drivers should be able to get an airport permit on their own and chose to affiliate with a company or not. "If (the council) doesn't want to regulate the franchise fee, fine," says Duale. "In fact, we don't want them to regulate anything. Let the market rule." Duale says taxi drivers would have more power to negotiate with cab companies and demand lower franchise fees if they were allowed to get permits as independent operators. But the city council does not appear to be headed in that direction. Rather, proposed revisions to the ordinance include smaller changes such as lowering the age limit on cars used as cabs and requiring that all taxis be equipped with credit card machines. The revisions also mandate yearly criminal background checks for cab company owners. Recently the city manager balked at a proposal from Charlotte Airport staff to give a lucrative contract to a company run by convicted felons. Correction: Charlotte taxi drivers report their weekly franchise fees run as high as $500, for a monthly total of $2,000.