PORTSMOUTH — City cab drivers are accusing each other of lying, cheating and stealing.
In one recent instance, a cabbie called police to report a plot to plant illegal drugs in a cab to get the driver arrested. The city has also received complaints, many anonymous, about cab drivers overcharging customers, breaking traffic laws, parking in metered spaces and shutting off meters before the end of rides to get larger tips.
“There are so many cabs on the road and they need that fare to make a living,” said Peter Bresciano, chairman of the Taxi Commission. “A lot of them don’t use radios anymore, they use cell phones, because they don’t want anyone hearing where their next call is going to be. We’re talking about capitalism – businesses competing.”
Bresciano said that ten years ago “there were fights on the street” between cabbies. After a quiet spell, he said, things have heated up again during the past few months, sans the fisticuffs.
“Lack of business,” is one reason, he said. Another popular opinion is that the city has issued too many medallions to license too many cabs, he said.
In a Feb. 20 letter to the Taxi Commission, Melissa McGuire, owner of Annie’s Taxi, wrote that she was told a competing cab driver planned to plant drugs in her cab and call police to say she was asking customers where she could buy illicit drugs. McGuire wrote that after hearing of the alleged plot, she called the police station and asked for a drug-sniffing dog to “check my car more extensively than I had.”
“Unfortunately they did not have one at that time to conduct the search,” she wrote to the commission. “The fare stealing, lie spreading and out and out thievery in the taxi business in Portsmouth is unbelievably embarrassing. I have heard so many complaints about other taxi drivers directly from the patrons of Portsmouth that I have run out of excuses for them.”
McGuire did not return the Herald’s messages seeking further comment.
Bresciano said allegations of criminal activity by cabbies belong with the police department, not the Taxi Commission.
“We don’t have investigative powers,” he said. “We’re all volunteers.”
Police Lt. Mark Newport attends Taxi Commission meetings on behalf of the police department and reports complaints about city cabs at the monthly commission meetings. According to minutes from those meetings, in December of 2011, Newport reported that police received a complaint about an unlicensed Checker Cab at the Pease golf course.
In January he reported that police received a complaint about a cabbie “speeding down Woodbury Avenue” and another call about a cabbie without a medallion picking up fares at the C&J bus depot. A cab driver is quoted as admitting he made the second police complaint.
During the February Taxi Commission meeting, Newport reported receiving a complaint from a Portsmouth Taxi driver complaining about losing business to the Port Authority which was giving rides to workers unloading salt from a docked ship. Newport reported that he spoke with the Port Authority and was told a volunteer group provides rides for ship workers and “have been doing it for years.”
During the same meeting, McGuire is quoted as saying, “we have a battlefield going on in the city, where one company is against another.” She went on to ask about policy pertaining to bus passengers at the C&J depot where cabbies “will swoop in and cut the other drivers off and take the passengers.” McGuire was advised to contact the Pease Development Authority and inquire whether they have a policy.
By ordinance, the city currently allows a maximum of 25 cabs to operate in the city and according to Bresciano, there are now 19 on the road. Meanwhile, he said, the economy has caused cab ridership to drop.
Richard Ford of Blue Star Taxi told the Commission in January that there’s “enormous pressure to try to squeeze two nickels together to make a dime.” And when the Taxi Commission was asked to issue an additional medallion to NH Checker Cab in February, Chester Deorocki of Blue Star Taxi objected while noting “the companies presently in business are all losing money.”
The Commission voted to approve the medallion for NH Checker Cab.
“Lowering the number of medallions may help, but there are shenanigans going on with some of the cab companies that make it hard to operate because they don’t believe there is a level playing field,” Ford is quoted in commission minutes.
Bresciano said a discussion about whether to reduce the number of medallions from 25 will be had during the Commission’s next meeting.
Taxi Commissioner and Blue Star Taxi owner Paul Ford said he believes there are too many cabs licensed to operate in Portsmouth. For perspective, he said Manchester has 21 approved taxis in a city with a population of 125,000 and an airport. Portsmouth has 21,000 people and the same amount of taxis, he said.
“Overall, the recession has caused quite a reduction in business,” said Ford, who also owns the Regal Limousine company in North Hampton. “People compete for what little of the pie is left. There are more cabs now than ever and it’s a shrinking pie.”
Ford said he’s never experienced antagonism from other cabbies, but speculated, “Maybe I’m more likeable.”
Also on the agenda for the next Taxi Commission meeting is a proposal to recommend that the City Council change the taxi ordinance to require cab drivers to adhere to state and federal laws. This would enable the city to require cab companies, on demand, to turn over their records for review.
City Councilor Ken Smith said he proposed the ordinance change about a year ago when it came to his attention that some cab drivers were independent contractors who may not be properly insured. He said if true, that could make the city liable for a taxi-related injury.
Smith, also chairman of the Parking and Safety Committee, said he’s also recently scolded city cabbies about parking in metered spots while the city sacrifices $3,300 a year to use some parking spots as designated taxi stands.
“If I continue to see the behavior,” he said, “I’m going to start reducing the number of taxi stands.”