Iowa City police seek more taxi rules after sexual assaults

Companies say costs would rise

(The Gazette)
(The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Iowa City’s police chief wants more regulations on taxis to improve public safety, but some owners of taxi companies are protesting the financial effect that would have on them.

“I don’t know why the city controls all this. This is my own business,” said Rafat Alawneh, who runs Number One Cab. “It doesn’t seem like we have freedom.”

The recommendations from Police Chief Sam Hargadine come after a series of alleged assaults on women by Iowa City taxi drivers last fall and winter.

In addition to that, Hargadine said it’s not uncommon for cabs to be used in crimes or drivers to be victims themselves.

Taxi companies, however, are not always able to provide timely and accurate information on vehicles and drivers, he said. As an example, Hargadine said during the assault investigation last winter, officers spent more than 200 hours tracking down drivers and compiling information because the business owner did not know who all of his drivers were.

Many companies hire drivers as independent contractors. They use their own cars under the company’s name rather than being actual employees of the business. In fact, when recently asked by the city, many owners could only guess at the number of drivers they had, Hargadine said.

As of Friday there were 94 vehicles from 10 companies registered as taxis in Iowa City, although that increases daily as the busy football season and cooler weather approaches, City Clerk Marian Karr said.

Hargadine is recommending companies be required to hire drivers as employees of the business and own the vehicles. He also wants:

l Companies to have unique color schemes so people can better identify to which company a cab belongs.

l Dispatch provided from an accessible office 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Some companies use cellphones and don’t operate out of a physical space.

l City-issued identification cards with photographs for drivers

l A signed receipt for an informational packet on city taxi rules before a driver is licensed by the city.

The City Council, which would have to approve any changes, will discuss the matter at a work session Tuesday. The council has tweaked regulations for cabs a few times in recent years.

Hargadine acknowledges his recommendations would have an economic impact on companies, particularly smaller ones. But he said the public safety aspect outweighs that. He’s also suggesting phasing in the changes.

“We’re not looking to put anybody out of business,” he said.

Switching from independent contractors to employees would increase wages and require companies to provide benefits like workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance and contribute to Social Security and Medicare, Hargadine said.

Marco’s Taxicab Co. in Iowa City already employs its drivers, and co-owner Mark Paterno estimates it costs up to $60,000 a year more than using independent contractors.

But he said having his 25 to 30 drivers be employees helps with workers’ compensation and coverage for injured drivers.

Also, there’s been a debate with drivers on whether it’s legal to classify them as independent contractors, and he wanted to be done fighting that. There have been lawsuits in Chicago and Boston over that issue.

Paterno is all for Hargadine’s recommendations.

“These are professional businesses,” he said. “There’s no reason why you can’t have a professional operation as well.”

Adil Adams, owner of American Taxi Cab, wants the city to help with expenses like painting the cabs. He also said if drivers become employees — he had about 30 independent contractors last school year — he expects them to ask for health insurance and other benefits.

“I am ready to help, to make everything secure for the student, but I want to make sure I can cover this,” he said.

Alawneh, of Number One Cab, said he already has a distinctive color scheme on his four cars, an office and is supportive of ID cards. But switching his 13 drivers from independent contractors to employees would hurt his bottom line, he said.

“It will affect us a lot because we’re not making much money,” he said.

Cedar Rapids allows taxi drivers to be independent contractors, said Bridget McMenomy of the City Clerk’s Office. As with the Iowa City proposal, the city requires companies have an office and drivers to get a city-issued license that includes a photograph.

Des Moines requires a police-issued license with a photo, but does not mandate companies have an office, and most of the taxi drivers are independent contractors, said Mike Berry, the city’s traffic facilities administrator.

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