Fall town meeting: taxi masala

A fair contender with the curry as great cuisine of India is the masala: a mixture with mainly “sweet” rather than “strong” seasonings. Unlike a curry, a masala does not abide mistakes. Leave out an ingredient or use the right ingredients in the wrong proportions, and a masala can become strange, spiky, flat or even disagreeable.

A regulated taxi fleet behaves similarly; a healthy fleet comes only with the right regulations in the right proportions. With numbers of taxis too few or too many, fares too high or too low, requirements too lax or too stringent a fleet suffers. Cabs may be unavailable when wanted, drivers surly, vehicles shabby.

Medallion plans: Brookline’s model of citizen-run boards is stressed by the amount of work needed in trying to regulate a taxi fleet. Before the current Transportation Board, originating at a town meeting in 1973, Brookline operated with three other approaches to traffic and taxi regulation. None coped well with the intensity of automobiles after World War II. In the work of taxi regulation, the current system may be treading on limits.

This year, town meeting intervention interrupted about eight years of work to introduce so-called “medallion” licensing: permanent, transferrable licenses rather than annually reviewed ones. Medallion systems began in large cities during the 1920s, as a way to reduce congestion and conflict from an oversupply of taxis. They remain uncommon outside large cities. Some–including Washington, DC–do not have such a system now.

Brookline’s interest in medallions looks always to have been inspired more by money than by good regulation. It first cropped up in 1994, when the town was planning its first Proposition 2-1/2 tax override, and it gathered steam in 2006, when a second tax override was in the wings. Historically, money from sale of taxi medallions has not been a dominant factor. Boston’s original system in the 1930s sold medallions for less than $100, in today’s values. Classic medallion systems focused on regulating sizes of taxi fleets, not on local revenues.

Professional advice: Brookline was professionally advised to focus on good regulation by Schaller Consulting of New York City. In 2006, the town hired Bruce Schaller to evaluate the potential of medallion licensing. Mr. Schaller had 25 years of experience analyzing taxi operations, including New York City, San Francisco, San Diego, Alexandria, VA, Anaheim, CA, Laredo, TX, and Montgomery County, MD. His “Brookline taxi study” counseled moderation.

The Schaller report of June, 2007, presented a plan to introduce medallions gradually, over about 16 years, and to focus on selling them to experienced taxi drivers. Under those conditions, Mr. Schaller predicted a market value of around $40,000, recommending a fee of $600 per month paid over seven years. [p. 3] That would have brought in an average of under $0.5 million a year–far less than Brookline officials hoped.

Delays and intervention: Efforts to get a state law authorizing taxi medallions bogged down, taking from 2007 to 2012. Toward the end of that period, the Board of Selectmen and the Transportation Board revisited medallion planning. By then, Mr. Schaller had left consulting to take an executive position in New York City government.

The town hired Richard LaCapra to develop a plan. Although experienced as a financial analyst, Mr. LaCapra had no background in taxi licensing. The LaCapra plan of March, 2012, called for much more rapid transition to a system with all-medallion taxis and predicted selling medallions at much higher prices. It had no provisions for selling to drivers except to a few who already held one or a small number of annually reviewed licenses.

After getting the LaCapra plan, Brookline’s efforts again bogged down, taking more than two years to reach an initial implementation that was most recently expected in summer, 2014–according to Todd Kirrane, Brookline’s transportation administrator. That allowed opportunities for intervention, seized by Precinct 8 town meeting member John Harris, who filed Article 26 for the 2014 annual town meeting last spring. It sought to repeal state authorization for taxi medallions.

Medallion shock: Article 26 sent medallion efforts into shock. Although initially somewhat skeptical about medallions, over time, all the taxi company owners and some taxi drivers had become advocates. The LaCapra plan included special help for current holders of annually reviewed licenses–big discounts on an initial set of medallions. Veterans of the Brookline taxi business who could buy medallions early at low prices were likely to prosper. Those buying medallions later, at higher prices, would be exposed to more risk.

The annual town meeting sent Article 26 to a study committee to be appointed by the moderator, Edward “Sandy” Gadsby. The committee met many times over the summer, submitting its report a day before the fall, 2014, town meeting began. In the meantime, Mr. Harris again proposed repeal, in Article 15 for the fall town meeting.

Precinct 11 town meeting member David Lescohier proposed a resolution under Article 16. Its key element, as summarized by the Advisory Committee, advocated that Brookline seek to “provide drivers with improved working conditions, a more secure future and an opportunity to own a stake in the taxicab business.”

Most reviews by town boards and committees, including the Board of Selectmen and the Advisory Committee, opposed Article 15 but supported Article 16. Apparently fearing Article 15 was headed for defeat, shortly before the town meeting Mr. Harris opted to drop repeal of state authorization and substitute a resolution. Its key element asks that Brookline “not sell, lease, rent or otherwise make available or require taxi medallions as a condition of any taxicab owner doing business….”

Town meeting review: At the second session of town meeting on Wednesday, November 19, some speakers tried to “spin” the resolution from Mr. Harris, as though it said “no taxi medallions,” but that was not what it said. Although a resolution is not binding on town officials and agencies, they could follow this one by setting up a hybrid system, in which some annually reviewed taxi licenses remained and medallions were not the only way to run a taxi business.

Precinct 6 town meeting member Chris Dempsey, a former assistant director of transportation for the state, launched the session’s main attack on taxi medallions, saying, “The sole benefit of a medallion scheme is a one-time financial windfall.” While Mr. Dempsey made it sound simple, that’s not necessarily so. To the disappointment of some town officials, the Schaller plan of 2007 would not have produced a windfall. Instead, it mainly aimed to encourage long-term service from experienced taxi drivers.

Donfred Gilles, a Brookline taxi driver for 25 years, described his fears and longings. Like several other Brookline drivers, Mr. Gilles is of Haitian descent. “In 2007,” he said, “when the town started the process of reforming the taxi industry, the town sided with us. We thought finally our time was coming. We are still holding on to the hope that it will happen.” He pleaded, “I’m here to speak on behalf of the drivers. I’m asking you to give [us] a chance.”

Michael Sandman, an Advisory Committee and Taxi Medallion Committee member and a former Transportation Board member, took issue with prejudice he has heard against drivers who support medallions, characterizing those views: “Drivers are immigrants; they don’t understand the risk of loans…Baloney: three of the four taxi companies are owned by immigrants. More than 40 experienced drivers are in line to buy medallions.”

Mr. Lescohier, speaking for Article 16, described his concerns, saying, “Working conditions are deteriorating. Many drivers work twelve hours a day. The job can be dangerous. There are no benefits, no paid sick time, no paid vacation, no workers compensation, no health insurance…At the end of the day, there’s less and less money…We need to give taxi drivers hope, give taxi businesses stability.”

Debate on the articles took about an hour and 50 minutes, with many more speakers and several questions. Precinct 14 town meeting member Clifford Brown asked how a medallion system could be more restrictive than the current closed system of annually reviewed licenses. Chad Ellis, a Precinct 12 town meeting member and member of the Taxi Medallion Committee, responded. The main difference was permanent medallions, he said. “It’s almost impossible to reduce the number of [medallion] licenses.”

In the end, town meeting adopted the resolution from Mr. Harris, proposed under Article 15, by 110-83, using an electronically recorded vote. A hand vote on Article 16 adopted Mr. Lescohier’s resolution by a very large majority, possibly 10 to 1.

Reconciling outcomes: It is far from clear what Brookline officials might do about the outcomes. The two resolutions are in partial conflict. Under Article 15, the town should not “require taxi medallions as a condition of any taxicab owner doing business.” Under Article 16, passed by a much larger majority, the town should allow taxi drivers an “opportunity to own a stake in the taxicab business.” A Transportation Division draft of taxi regulations, last updated in February, will need attention.

There is no apparent way for the town to honor the spirit of Article 16 without medallions, but Article 15 insists that the town not “require taxi medallions as a condition” of doing business. A review of the 2007 Schaller report could help. Taken together, the two resolutions seem to call for an even more complex “taxi masala”–a spicy mixture of ingredients that need to be maintained in careful balance in order to work.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, November 22, 2014

Warrant report, November 18, 2014, town meeting, Town of Brookline, MA

Fall town meeting: tobacco controls, resolution derby, Brookline Beacon, November 20, 2014

Craig Bolon, Risking a taxi revolt: business survival in Brookline, Brookline Beacon, July 26, 2014

Brookline taxis: can you afford a “medallion” taxi?, Brookline Beacon, July 20, 2014

Brookline taxis: long-term “medallion” licenses, Brookline Beacon, July 19, 2014

Unattributed (apparently Richard LaCapra), Final report on the Brookline taxi industry, undated (apparently March, 2012)

Bruce Schaller, Brookline taxi study, Schaller Consulting, June, 2007

Kate Eaton, Checkered past, Chicago Tribune, October 26, 1997

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