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TAXICAB RATE INCREASE ON VERGE OF COUNCIL APPROVAL

The taxicab rate increase that has been delayed by poor timing and poor communications appeared headed for approval after a second meeting between taxi owners and City Council members Tuesday.

The four Council members present said they would try to meet this morning's deadline to get the rate increase on the agenda for next Tuesday's Council meeting. If they could not meet that deadline, they said, it would definitely be on the next agenda.

Four votes are needed for approval. Council Members John G. Accardo, Paul A. Dyster, Barbara A. Geracitano and Frances M. Iusi attended the meeting and, after clearing the air on a number of issues, said they were prepared to approve the increase.

Iusi sponsored the amendment to raise the rates but did not get any support. Council Chairman Anthony F. Quaranto was in Albany on Tuesday but has said previously that he was prepared to support an increase when the issue came back to the Council.

Quaranto and Accardo said the timing of the first request was bad, coming during budget time last fall when taxes and water and sewer rate increases for residents were being discussed. Accardo said that there were poor communications with the Council about the rationale behind the increase. The increase was recommended by a task force formed last year, but the task force never presented its findings to the Council.

The task force was formed by City Administrator Albert T. Joseph and included representatives of the major taxi companies, the city administration, the Niagara Falls Area Chamber of Commerce and the Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Frederick Caso Jr., vice president of the chamber, served on the task force, which met seven or eight times. He said the issues covered were the quality of service to customers, appearance of cabs and drivers and the level of hospitality and accuracy of information they give to visitors.

Only after those items were hashed out was the subject of rates discussed, according to Caso. By the time the increase was unanimously recommended, he said, he believed that every member of the task force was satisfied that the owners were doing their best.

Damon A. DeCastro, attorney for Blue United Taxi, said discussions were held about reviving the city's Taxicab Commission to keep lines of communications open among the cabbies, the city administration and the Police Department. Caso said the Convention & Visitors Bureau would arbitrate minor disputes and continue hospitality training for drivers. Accardo said he and Geracitano have long desired a way to regulate the industry better.

When some in the room questioned whether such authority should fall under a "political" body, Accardo said, "I know you're trying to run a business. But it's public transportation; that's why we regulate it."

The owners have their share of complaints, too, from the condition of city streets to the city's enforcement of the Taxicab Ordinance. Jeanette Cassatt, owner of Patriot Taxi, and Terry Litten, an independent owner and driver with LaSalle Cab Dispatch Service, said the police do not respond to their complaints about out-of-town taxis picking up fares and private, unlicensed cars taking away business.

Taxi rates have not been raised in six years, but the costs of fuel, insurance, workers' compensation and other expenses -- as well as their property taxes and sewer and water rates -- have risen, they said. Even with the new rates, the city's fares would be below the City of Buffalo's before its last increase.

The increase would raise the rate for the first sixth of a mile from $1.50 to $1.80 and the rate for each subsequent sixth of a mile from 25 cents to 30 cents. It would raise the cost for the first mile by 60 cents and the cost of each additional mile by 30 cents. The average cab ride in the city is two miles, the drivers said.

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