By Ryan Alessi, publisher
With the number of licensed taxi drivers in Harrisonburg down 68% from 2017, the city council on Tuesday gave initial approval to a sweeping re-write of the city code to allow taxi companies to set their own rates, among other changes.
Taxi companies in the city have decreased over the last five years because of “devastating effects of the pandemic and competition from the Ubers and Lyfts of the world,” City Attorney Chris Brown told the council.
Four cab companies operating in Harrisonburg have a total of 18 licensed drivers and 15 taxies, down from 56 drivers and 48 cabs in 2017, Brown said.
Ride-hailing services, such as Uber and Lyft, have cut into the taxi business in communities nationwide. And those companies — because they’re not regulated the same way as taxis — can set their own rates. But, under Harrisonburg’s ordinances, the city council determines taxi rates.
The council last set the per-mile rates in 2008 to be $1.80 inside the city and $2 outside of Harrisonburg and the base rate where the meter begins at $2.75, although the council approved an additional 75-cent increase in 2012 when gas prices spiked.
With the proposed changes the council unanimously endorsed in its first reading Tuesday, taxi companies could choose their rates but must post them on the taxis for potential customers to see. To change rates, they must file paperwork with the Harrisonburg Police Department, but the new rates won’t take effect for 30 days.
“It seems like this is going to level the playing field for the cab companies,” Vice-Mayor Sal Romero said.
Romero, though, said he was concerned about how the change might affect customers, particularly those who rely on taxis regularly.
Brown said the new changes would allow cab companies to offer discounts to frequent customers — something not allowed under the current ordinance. That way, he said, taxi companies have another way to keep loyal customers who take taxis to school or work or people with disabilities who need to use taxis. And, Brown said, it might end up that those customers pay the same or less.
Council member Laura Dent said Uber and Lyft can raise their rates during peak periods or for events, such as JMU football games, and asked whether giving taxi companies the same flexibility would also help. Brown said it would be part of the discussion before the next council meeting when the revised taxi ordinance will come back for its second reading before the council.
Other changes include shifting the licensing of new cab drivers and license renewals of drivers every two years to the Harrisonburg Police Department instead of being the city Department of Transportation’s responsibility.
“It’s something that didn’t belong in transportation,” Chief Kelley Warner told The Citizen after the meeting.
And instead of the transportation department handling the review of driver background checks, taxi owners would be responsible for that.
“We think that will make the owners a little more selective about potential drivers,” Brown said.
The transportation department still would handle inspections of taxis and their meters.
Mayor makes statement on Salvation Army
Mayor Deanna Reed said the city isn’t in a position to act, at this point, on concerns about the Salvation Army’s emergency shelter in Harrisonburg.
“I know people have a lot of questions about what is going on with the Salvation Army,” Reed said before reading a prepared statement near the end of Tuesday’s meeting.
She said while the city council has provided grant funding to the Salvation Army, “the city government does not have the authority to inspect those concerns or dictate what services those nonprofits provide or how they provide them” outside of regular city or state building codes and regulations.
But she said city staff have been in touch with local and regional Salvation Army officials about the concerns that the former and current staff and residents have raised about staffing and the facilities.
“We appreciate their willingness to engage with us on those matters,” Reed said. “We will continue to consider any concerns … and see if there is any action warranted from us. However, at this time, none of those concerns fall within the authority of the city government.”
Reed began the statement by saying the Salvation Army has provided “vital” services, such as providing shelter and a food pantry for people in need.
Return of the Municipal Building?
Interim City Manager Ande Banks’ request for $225,000 to build several new staff offices and a conference room on City Hall’s third floor sparked a discussion among the council about making multi-million-dollar investments into other city buildings — including a return to the historic Municipal Building.
It has been more than six years since city staff moved out of and shuttered the Municipal Building next door to City Hall in September 2015. Contractors stripped the building down to the studs in preparation for renovations that haven’t been approved or funded yet.
Council member Chris Jones said now might be the time to start that discussion. He said he remembered when the council penciled in $5 million for the renovation costs — an amount that has likely gone up since.
“I’d like to see us put in the budget for next year,” he said of the project.
The Municipal Building’s original section went up in 1879, and its front section — built in 1908 — was the first new public school constructed in Harrisonburg.
Addressing the city’s Public Works Department building on East Mosby Road off South Main Street also should be a priority, Jones said.
In the meantime, the council approved Banks’ request for the $225,000 to construct offices and a conference room on the third-floor lobby to accommodate a growing staff.
“As our city gets bigger, the services we provide expands, and the staff expands with them,” Banks said.
For instance, the city just hired a grant coordinator to handle applications for federal American Rescue Plan Act funds and infrastructure projects funded through legislation Congress passed last fall, as well as other state and federal grants.
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