The City Council will consider suggestions tonight from the Commission on Aging on ways to salvage a faltering subsidized taxi service for the elderly and disabled.
According to the COA and the Commission on Disability, cab drivers are increasingly refusing to pick up elderly and disabled fares. Commissioners said it’s because the city’s paratransit program doesn’t pay full fare and because elderly and disabled passengers can require more work.
COA Chair Charlie Betcher said his commission is recommending the city contract with more taxi companies, pay full fare and reimburse the companies twice a month instead of once a month.
In a report to the council, the city manager asked the council to wait until June 12 to take action, so the implications of the recommendation can be thoroughly examined.
Disabled or elderly Berkeley residents can purchase taxi vouchers, which are called scrips. The scrips, redeemable with four taxi companies in contract with the city, are discounted to passengers on a sliding scale depending on income.
Instead of cash, scrip riders pay cab drivers with the vouchers, which drivers then submit to the taxi companies they work for. Then the drivers can wait up to two months for the city to reimburse the taxi company at 90 cents on the dollar.
COD Commissioner Karen Rose said the problem became worse when Golden Gate Luxor Cab Company pulled out of its longtime contract with the city.
“They were the number one company in Berkeley,” she said. “They showed up when they said they would and they screened their drivers so they were always friendly.”
Rose said that the remaining three taxi companies rarely show up and if they do they’re late. Rose, who is blind, said she now has to hitchhike to work as many as three times a week.
“I had a doctor’s appointment today and the company I called didn’t show up so I was out there on University Avenue hitchhiking with shingles all over my face,” she said.
Mahin Rajabi, who runs Golden Gate Luxor Cab Company with her husband, Nemat Modarresi, said their small company can no longer afford to provide scrip service. “We haven’t been able to afford it for the last two years,” she said. “But we continued because we felt an obligation to our customers.”
Rajabi said their drivers often live day to day and come to work with little or no cash. They have to buy gas for the cab and be able to pay for lunch “and all they get is paper.”
She said the six-cab company recently lost a driver who had 14 years experience to a San Francisco cab company because he wanted to work for cash.
“As it is, my husband drives seven days a week and we are in debt,” she said. “We will miss our regular customers, but we just can’t do it anymore.”
The city administers the program and subsidizes half of it. The other half comes from Measure B, a countywide transportation tax, first approved by voters in 1986. Voters renewed the tax in November.
Currently 11 percent, or $149 million, of the revenue raised by the half-cent sales tax goes to county paratransit programs including discounted taxi services and van transportation for the disabled and elderly.
According to the Berkeley Paratransit Subsidy Services Operations Administer Gene Biggins, the taxi scrip budget for this fiscal year is roughly $175,000.
Director of Housing Stephen Barton said the city might raise the scrip redemption from 90 cents to 103 cents on the dollar to encourage cab drivers to provide the much-needed service.
Barton said another possibility is making it mandatory for all cab companies doing business in Berkeley to provide a certain amount of scrip service each week as a condition of renewing their taxi permit.
COD Vice Chair Karen Craig said she would like the city to require taxi companies doing business in Berkeley to have a percentage of their fleet be wheelchair accessible vans.
“I think the city manager should start looking into some sources for grant funding that would help the companies purchase the vans,” she said.
One Berkeley cab driver, who asked not to be identified, said that picking up the disabled and elderly can be difficult work. “You have to help them from their house to the cab,” he said. “And then they only want to go three blocks to do the shopping, which you get to carry, all for a voucher you have to wait a month to get paid for.”
He said that most scrip users don’t have much money so they rarely tip.
Tonight the City Council will hear from Bobby Singer, former chair of the COA and presently head of the Elders’ Network and Esther Kassoy, 86, a frequent scrip user. The two will speak in behalf of the COA recommendation.