Outsourcing our cab rides: why the taxi franchise deserves our protection

Thursday, August 9, 2012

What is a franchise? A franchise is a right granted to an individual or a group to market a company's goods or services within a certain territory or location. That's why most small towns only have one McDonald's, one Taco Bell, one electric company, etc.

A franchise is a two-way street, however, a knife that cuts both ways. In exchange for the right to conduct one's business in a particular area, the franchise is guaranteed some form of protection against competition.

Consider the alternative: if there could be as many electric companies as wanted to operate, each with its own electric lines and poles, the result would be a nightmare. And that's an obvious example.

The ongoing ordeal over the taxi and limo ordinances partakes of the same argument, a consideration of exclusivity of a particular form of transportation -- the taxi cab -- against encroachment upon that franchise by competitors, in this case limousine operators functioning in both the traditional sense of what a limo does, as well as operating essentially as taxis.

While $5 limo rides might be a great deal for some, try calling a limo at 3 a.m. when you just got out of the ER and don't have the cash. Historically, it won't be the limo that arrives, it will be David "Fuzzy" White in a taxi.

At the heart of all this are two basic issues, annoyingly interwoven: who has the franchise, such as it is, and (according to his critics) even if it is Fuzzy, taxi service around here sucks!

That's like saying, "I didn't steal your dog, and besides that, it's an ugly dog."

That doesn't count as an argument.

To be fair, the members of the committee now struggling over the issue are striving to deal with one specific dimension of the problem -- namely, what would constitute the best possible current taxi franchise ordinance, given what they can decipher from Eureka's labyrinthine taxi ordinance history.

At some point the wording regarding "franchise" simply disappeared from city code. Somebody just deleted the reference, and that slipped through the cracks and now we're dealing with the result.

As City Clark Ann Armstrong has pointed out vociferously at recent taxi ordinance committee meetings, you can't just un-franchise somebody without going through a process. Steps must be taken.

But in this case, there is no evidence any steps were ever taken of any kind, at all. Somebody just got out the Big Eraser and hey presto! No more franchise.

As a result, a few years back limousines began to be licensed and to run in competition with what had previously been exclusively the venue of a single local operation.

Times have changed but the problem remains. What do you do once you've let Pandora out of the box?

There are at least two sides to every argument, in this case each represented at meetings, one by David "Fuzzy" White, who has operated Eureka Taxi for 23 years, and the other by Cody Steussy of Abundant Transportation and Eureka Springs Limo, who operates taxis in Fayetteville and has run limo/taxi rides in Eureka Springs much more recently.

The problem in being fair is that there are too many holes in the story, too many broken bread crumb trails through the dark forest of city code, and so the committee is working to make a good ordinance, whether based on the most recent semi-coherent taxi ordinance passed in Eureka, whenever that was, or based on the models of such cities as Fayetteville or Hot Springs.

The group from Fayetteville is eager to be helpful in getting such an ordinance together and being good sports about it all -- if they can get their piece of the pie, they stand to make money from Eureka's large tourist base.

But the real question remains underneath: who ought to have the Eureka Springs taxi franchise?

Answer: David "Fuzzy" White. Here are three reasons why:

1. Outsourcing does not mean just to India. If you are so minded to think globally and act locally, support someone who has been on duty for 23 years through thick years and thin and continues to do so despite the current kinked-up situation with the limos.

2. If the city pretends the franchise never existed, or comes up with some way of "leveling the playing field" so everybody comes out happy, then the very concept of franchise is rendered a nullity, as someone once said. There isn't a fortune to be made in the taxi business. Based on personal experience, it's "Getting' By" money on average. So there's no particular bucket of gold at the end of this rainbow.

3. Because of its tourist industry, Eureka Springs supports a functioning taxi service comparable with those of much larger cities. The ongoing whittling-away at this basic service (tourists don't need rides to work or the grocery store, but we do) could easily lead to a situation where Eureka's taxi-needing citizenry finds itself at the mercy of trolley politics and/or limo services from Fayetteville to get a ride to pay their electric bill. A good proposition? Not so much.