As the city faces major budget cuts, the Mountain View Police Department has come up with a money-saver: The department wants to stop using its resources to conduct annual taxi cab inspections, as well as criminal background checks and fingerprinting of taxi drivers.
In response, the City Council on Tuesday appeared supportive of using something else to ensure taxi service quality: the free market.
If the council's discussion Tuesday turns into policy, it could mean a larger variety of taxi cabs parked in front of the downtown train station. Current restrictions only allow two taxi companies to pick up customers in Mountain View: Yellow Cab Company Peninsula and Checker Cab of Silicon Valley.
City Attorney Michael Martello said the restriction was a holdover from the days when cities had to promise cab companies a territory or there would be no taxi service.
Though the police department has not received any complaints about a lack of taxi service in the city, dozens of cab companies have applied to do business here over the years. Many spoke Tuesday evening, including one man who said he was using a limo to get around the regulations and was charging less than taxi service in Mountain View. Many taxi services in the phone book regularly turn away customers who call from Mountain View.
The city's taxi ordinance allows only 34 taxis in the city at a time, a restriction which caused council member Jac Siegel to ask why the free market couldn't be trusted to regulate how many taxis were needed. "Good question," said police captain Max Bosel.
"Are there any other businesses we regulate this much?" Siegel asked.
"The most comparable would be massage parlors," Bosel said.
Bosel said that under the current ordinance, taxi drivers who have been arrested for battery, for example, are not be able to work in the city, and others have been turned away for other past crimes. Under the Police Department's recommendation that would no longer be the case. However, Bosel said that cities including Milpitas and Redwood City have not had any problems as a result of such practices.
One cab company owner from southern San Mateo County, where there are few regulations on taxis, said that "what really works is taking care of customers. The bread and butter of our business is repeat customers. I think it takes care of itself."
A potential Mountain View cab operator offered to charge $2.50 a mile for service rather than the $3 currently offered. He also offered a 25 percent discount to seniors. He said he would be willing to pay a $500 franchise fee to work in Mountain View. (Mountain View currently charges a $114 franchise fee, while San Jose, for example, charges $8,500).
Opponents to deregulation included Larry Silva, owner of Checker Cab, and a handful of taxi drivers. Silva said "deregulation" of taxis was dangerous and appears to be "bleeding" to the west side of Silicon Valley. He said he wants the city to keep requiring drug tests of drivers.
Council member Tom Means, a libertarian and economics professor at San Jose State University, asked Silva why he was using such strong language. Silva said that without some rules, taxi drivers may start to engage in fights and bidding wars for customers as they once did at San Jose airport.
"At the end of the day it doesn't make for a good cab industry," he said.
Currently, taxis that park at the Caltrain station appear to have organized a system so there are no fights over who picks up the next customer. But that may change if the city is opened up to almost any cab operator, said council member Mike Kasperzak.
"We don't have that much business as it is," said one Mountain View taxi driver.
Mayor Margaret Abe-Koga and council members Means, Siegel and John Inks supported allowing other cab companies to come into the city.
"Competition — that's the key to customer satisfaction," Inks said.
Although council member Laura Macias was absent, all those present agreed that it didn't make sense to have highly paid sworn police officers doing the various background checks and cab inspections. Abe-Koga said she wanted the city to begin regulating taxis through business license requirements instead, which could include some form of outside inspection of cabs.