Two El Centro taxi owners advocating for higher fares and other reforms cite the high cost of permits and sticky city regulations that prevent them from attaining better revenues.
Jorge Garcia, owner of Blue Cab One, and Froilan Medina, owner of American Taxi Care, said they would like to see a change in city ordinances regulating the trade.
"I get a lot of calls from Imperial Valley College but I tell them I'm not allowed to pick them up since my business is in El Centro," said Medina, explaining he understood his El Centro license prevents him from picking up passengers outside the city.
"I'd rather go to Calexico," he said. “If I could pick up in Calexico I could increase business 40 percent or more. Sometimes drivers from Indio drop off passengers in Calexico and look for customers to bring back to Coachella or Indio."
While both owners said they assumed there is an El Centro city ordinance preventing them from picking up riders outside El Centro, a city official said that is a false assumption.
Richard Romero, El Centro finance manager, explained there is no city ordinance banning cabs from one city from picking up passengers in another city.
"All taxicabs conducting business in El Centro are required to be licensed in our city," said Romero. "Each city has their own requirements and draft their own ordinances regulating cabs in their own city."
However, even if the El Centro license allows cab companies to pick up fares in other cities, fees levied by those other cities create an impediment.
"I could pick up customers in Imperial if I have a permit. But the city of Imperial requires $300 for a permit and I need a permit for each cab," Medina added.
Garcia, who formerly employed Medina, explained each city with a cab company requires a permit and the fee varies from city-to-city. He called Imperial’s $300 fee "ridiculous."
The Imperial fee would have to be paid on top of the fees paid in El Centro, which, according to El Centro city accounting specialist Adriana Anguis, include charges of $46 per year per cab.
Medina estimated his business would increase at least 10 percent if he were allowed to pick up fares in Imperial.
Yet Medina did raise a relevant question about what he sees as an unlevel playing field concerning online ride services such as Uber, especially when competition is fierce in a small city like El Centro with seven cab companies.
"Uber can pick up passengers anywhere and they're doing the same as taxis, so why can't we do that?" he said. "I think the rules should be equal for everybody."
But Romero pointed out Uber and other online ride services are regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission, which has asserted its jurisdiction over that type of service.
It was Garcia who got the taxi debate rolling in the summer when he submitted a letter to El Centro city Finance Director Leticia Salcido. It requested fares rise from $5.50 to $7.50 and the maximum wait time fee increase to $35 from $12, since rates had remained the same for 10 years.
The city council voted in August to raise fares to $6 and the maximum wait-time fee from $12 to $20. But Garcia felt a 50-cent increase over a decade was inadequate and persuaded other city cab companies to back his letter of protest that requested the council to reconsider. All cab companies agreed except Yellow Cab Co. that argued in favor of keeping rates at $5.50.
Yet the larger issue for Medina is approving a requirement for installation of taxi cab meters.
"Most taxi companies want meters except Yellow Cab, but meters would be more fair," said Medina. "El Centro is falling behind other cities. Even if you go to Walmart, it's all self-service check out. That's progress."
Perhaps complicating the issue is state Assembly Bill 1069 passed earlier this year and to be implemented on Jan.1. It mandates a taxicab company may use any type of technology approved by the state Division of Measurement Standards to calculate fares, provided the device complies with the Business and Professions Code.
At an El Centro City Council meeting in September Mayor Cheryl Vegas-Walker explained her experience in other cities in which some mandate use of meters and others leave it up to cab company discretion.
"The new law doesn't take effect until January and we can have something in place by then," she said.
Rather than take any action the council allowed rates to remain as they adjusted them earlier in the summer and used that as a guideline but not to be exceeded.