A bill designed to restructure the taxi industry in Prince George's County by offering incentives to new cab companies has drawn fire from some cabdrivers who say the measure would hurt their business.
Proponents of the legislation, which is scheduled for a vote by the County Council, want to open up an industry that they say has been unfairly dominated by a few companies that hold the bulk of a limited number of operating certificates. The proposal follows a move by the Montgomery County Council late last year to break up Barwood Inc.'s monopoly on Montgomery's taxi market.
Prince George's has 775 operating certificates, or medallions, which have all been allotted, officials said.
Under the bill, the county would award at least 30 new medallions to each new, eligible company and make it illegal for cabdrivers to sell or transfer certificates to those outside their immediate families, preventing resale of the certificates for profit.
At the center of the debate is Silver Cab Co., the dominant player in the market. Silver's owner, Bob Nabley, holds 150 of the county's medallions, company attorney John Lally said. Nabley's influence extends beyond his own taxis. Many of the county's independent drivers and small companies link to Nabley's global positioning system dispatch network for $7 a day, Lally said.
"They don't use the word 'monopoly,' but the bottom line is it is a monopoly," said Ronald Smith, chairman of the county's taxi board, a government advisory panel.
Opponents of the bill say that the council is overstepping its bounds and that limiting the transfer of medallions would hurt cabdrivers who rely on their resale for income when they leave the business.
When medallions are available, qualifying cabdrivers may purchase them from the county for a one-time fee of about $150, said Smith, a cabdriver in the area for more than 20 years until he took the taxi board post. But they can be resold for as much as $10,000 on the street, several cabdrivers said. (Such certificates can sell for as much as $60,000 on the street in Montgomery, Lally said.)
In an industry that rarely provides cabdrivers with health insurance or retirement benefits, a certificate can be an asset.
"My wife can take this medallion and lease it to someone, thereby creating a source of income" in the event of an emergency, said taxi board member David Arnett, who owns a 42-car company, Community Cab Co. "But with this bill, she won't be able to do this."
The measure was introduced Tuesday by council members Camille Exum (D-Seat Pleasant) and Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Bowie). County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) supports the bill and said he believes it would increase competition among drivers, spokesman Jim Keary said.
But it is unclear how many council members will vote for the bill, and at least one said he opposes it.
"I think it's wrong to eliminate the transferability of the medallions," council member Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton) said. "The medallions are in short supply and consequently they have a value, and I think it's wrong to undercut the value to small-business people."
Some in the industry, as well as Exum and Peters, said the medallions were not intended to be assets for cabdrivers.
"I believe that that wasn't its intended purpose to be an insurance policy," Exum said. "Certainly if there is value to it, perhaps the value should belong to the county government."
The medallions were originally intended to give new cabdrivers a fair shot at entering the market, Peters said.
"People are selling their medallions, making a profit off of their medallions, and it's at the point now where we need to step in and put some rules in place," he said.
Anthony Obasanjo, who founded the Prince George's County Taxicab Drivers Association and was appointed by Johnson to the taxi board last fall, is the type of person the bill is designed to help.
Obasanjo said he does not hold a medallion and has been operating his company, Royale Cab Co., by leasing cars from other cab companies that he said have been hoarding certificates.
"It's more a fraud, more of a monopoly, more of a racketeering," Obasanjo said. "They are buying up the market so there will be no other competition."
Some critics said Exum drafted the bill under pressure from Obasanjo, who said he has lobbied hard for the change.
"If you want to put Tony's name on it, you certainly can," Smith said. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out who could benefit from the bill."
Exum said Obasanjo was one of several people who came to her with concerns that the industry was in disarray. She denied that the bill is designed to help Obasanjo's company.
"I'm doing what I think is in the best interest of the citizens of the county, as I always do -- period," she said.
The council is likely to vote on the bill before it recesses in August.
Cabdriver Dinesh Malhotra displays his operating certificate, which costs about $150 from the county but could be sold for $10,000 on the street, some say.