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Council considering key change to taxi tax rather than delay

Members of the City Council are considering amending Baltimore's controversial new taxi tax, switching collection from the current per-passenger structure to a per-trip basis.

"Some of us think it might be more efficient and effective to do per trip," Councilman Carl Stokes, chair of the taxation committee, said Thursday.

The proposed change comes after months of complaints from taxi drivers and cab, limousine and other livery companies that the current per-passenger collection structure is far too burdensome.

Some said it didn't align with dispatch software. Others said they were told about the tax too late to make changes before its Oct. 1 start date.

Stokes' committee heard testimony on the tax Thursday during a hearing for a bill that would retroactively delay the implementation of the existing tax for six months while companies and drivers adjusted to its requirements.

However, much of the testimony and the discussion between council members and William Voorhees, the city's director of revenue and tax analysis, focused instead on the collection structure.

"It veered into the methodology," said Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who sponsored the bill to delay the tax and attended the Thursday hearing.

The hearing concluded with no vote on Clarke's bill. After the hearing, Stokes said the committee was reconsidering the language of the tax instead of the delay.

Clarke said any conversation about the problems the tax has caused for local companies — and potential solutions — is worthwhile.

"At least now we have some real experiences to look at," Clarke said of Thursday's hearing testimony, which came from executives of large companies and individual cabdrivers.

Dwight Kines, a spokesman for Veolia Transportation, which operates the city's Yellow, Checker and Sun cab fleets, spoke in favor of Clarke's delay proposal but also said the per-passenger structure would continue to be troublesome.

Drivers in Veolia's fleet began collecting the 25-cents-per-passenger tax after the Maryland Public Service Commission granted it and other Baltimore cab companies permission to post stickers in their vehicles announcing a commensurate increase in fares, he said.

Mark Thistel, owner of Mount Washington-based FreedomCar, said he also supported the delay, which would give him more time to update software to track passengers. But a switch to a per-trip rate would be preferable, he said.

Others railed against the tax in general and the per-passenger charge structure specifically.

Andy Tedla, 61, of Reisterstown, said he has been driving a taxi in Baltimore for 22 years, mainly in low-income and "rough" neighborhoods.

In one recent, not-unusual incident, a young mother in the back of his cab took serious offense when he began counting her children in order to assess the tax, he said.

"You may not have done it intentionally," Tedla told the members of the committee, "but this [taxi tax] law, as a driver, is making me go through lots of harassment."

After the hearing, Stokes said members of his committee understand there are serious issues with the way the taxi tax is structured, not just with its timing.

He and other committee members are considering amendments to raise the $1.3 million that the city projected the tax would generate, but in a different way, he said. A per-trip charge is "a very strong consideration and possibility," Stokes said.

He also said that the committee will look for ways to apply the tax to ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft, which are not covered under it.

Several taxi drivers who testified on Thursday said the current tax gives Uber and Lyft an unfair competitive advantage.

The existing taxi tax is part of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's 10-year financial plan for the city, and is meant to help offset cuts to property taxes, among other things, her office has said.

After the tax went into effect on Oct. 1, many taxi companies said they would not pay it. Revenues have been well below what the city projected, according to city data.

The mayor's office previously said she would veto Clarke's delay bill, noting that cab companies have been offered options for complying with the tax.

Kevin Harris, a mayoral spokesman, said Thursday that Rawlings-Blake "remains committed to finding the best compromise that works best for all parties involved."

krector@baltsun.com

twitter.com/rectorsun

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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