Jerry Wood, a garrulous man with a meat-and-potatoes physique, has been on a first-name basis for decades with the officials who regulate taxicabs in Frederick. In the old days, if there was a complaint to the city about a rude driver, an alderman or a police officer might call Jerry. Then Wood, owner of City Cab Co., would give the driver a talking-to. Problem solved.
"I miss the friendly people," said Wood, 56, who has long been the city's biggest cab operator. "Now it's all business. You used to enjoy coming out and doing it. And now you got all these people in a mad rush. They want everything at the snap of their fingers."
When Wood got into the business in 1977, Frederick charged $25 per taxi for a hack license and allowed no more than 35 cabs on its streets. Those rules had been enacted by the city 16 years earlier, in 1961.
Four decades later, Frederick's population has more than doubled, to 52,000, and 10 mayoral administrations have come and gone. The world, locally and globally, has changed immeasurably.
And the number of cabs?
Still limited to 35.
And just try finding one these days.
Demand for cab service has grown with the city, resulting in more and more complaints about intolerable waiting times. And so Frederick officials last week began work on an overhaul of the taxi ordinance, to increase the number of cabs in the city, among other changes. It would be the first such revision since John F. Kennedy was president -- and not a moment too soon, many say.
"The ordinance needs to be made contemporary," said Alderman Dave Lenhart (R). "It needs to reflect the kind of service we want for residents, and provide the underpinning to make it economically viable for operators."
Lenhart, chairman of the city's taxicab commission, last month convened the first meeting of the commission since 2000. He said he aims to have an improved ordinance in place by summer.
The limit on licenses isn't the only problem with the outdated ordinance. The cost of a license remains just $25, a fee so low that the police department, which oversees taxi licenses and does background checks on drivers, is losing money in the process. The ordinance also requires that drivers be U.S. citizens, a provision that lawyers said would be unlikely to survive a court challenge.
A large percentage of cabdrivers in major metropolitan areas, including Washington, are immigrants, many of them permanent U.S. residents but not citizens. Frederick's citizenship requirement is something "I've never heard of," said Nancy Kutz, manager of special transportation and taxicab regulation in neighboring Montgomery County.
Kutz , who is also a former president of the International Association of Transportation Regulators, said about 75 percent of cabdrivers in Montgomery were not born in the United States.
Wood, who holds 19 of the 35 available licenses, dominates the Frederick cab market. Nine other licenses are held by independent drivers, but Wood profits from them, too, because they pay fees to use his dispatch service. Yet he said he welcomes the planned ordinance revision because the citizenship requirement has made it increasingly hard to find drivers. Some of Wood's taxis sit idle outside City Cab headquarters, in a two-story converted farmhouse along what is now an industrial strip in Frederick.
"This is one of the jobs that Americans don't want to do anymore," he said.
On the other side of town, William Bowie also backs the ordinance change.
Bowie started his cab company with one car in 1990. Now he has six licenses, five cabs on the road, and one out of commission. He said he would like to put three or four more on the road, but no licenses are available. One license is unissued, but city officials have decided to hold onto it until the ordinance is revised.
In Bowie's view, Wood has a hold on the market that needs to be opened up. Though Bowie refrains from calling City Cab Co. a monopoly, his lawyer, Daniel Mahone, does not.
"The majority of the permits are benefiting one company, and that's City Cab," said Bowie's lawyer, Daniel Mahone.
For people who needs rides, the planned ordinance revision is all about service, not profit.
"We hear a lot of complaints from people who say they can't get a cab in the middle of the night," said Alderman Donna Ramsburg (D). "People have given up. It's the same thing every time and nobody seems to be doing anything about it."
The wait for a cab can be an hour or more -- longer in the evenings, when City Cab is the only company operating, and with only two or three cabs on the road. Neal Wirth, who moved to Frederick from Montgomery 15 years ago, also said that dispatchers "are rude and unintelligible," and that "it has gotten much worse" recently.
"You call a day ahead of time, trying to schedule a taxi . . . and they never show up," Wirth said. "Then you call and they say, 'Well, we don't schedule a day ahead of time.' Attention to detail has really fallen off."
As for Wood, he says talk of changing the existing law "makes me so happy."
"The way it's been has kept me down so bad," he said. "This is 2003, this is not 1961."