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Sonoma County considers licensing taxis, cab drivers

Published: Tuesday, January 1, 2013 at 12:21 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 1, 2013 at 12:21 p.m.

A proposal set for public review early this year would add Sonoma County to the growing list of local governments that regulate taxi companies and cab drivers.

The ordinance would require separate annual permits for vehicles and drivers at a combined estimated cost of more than $400. The county is proposing to waive those fees and the permit process for companies and operators already licensed by local cities.

Because most of the 36 taxi companies and 117 cabs registered to operate in the county fall under those city rules, county officials said, they expect as few as 25 cabs, operating primarily in the unincorporated area, may be subject to the county rules.

"It's only a handful that would need the county permits," said Michael Gossman, a county administrative analyst.

He said the ordinance is needed to comply with a 1983 state law that requires cities and counties to adopt regulations governing taxi service in their jurisdiction.

On the county level, only the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport regulates taxis through a temporary, 2½-year-old program scheduled for a separate update this spring.

Permitting and enforcement for the county ordinance would be overseen by the Sheriff's Office. A public meeting to discuss the proposal is scheduled for 3 p.m. Jan. 22 at the sheriff's headquarters, 2796 Ventura Ave., Santa Rosa.

The county ordinance would be similar to regulations imposed by at least six local cities, including Santa Rosa, which last month began enforcing taxi rules adopted by the City Council in mid-2011.

For vehicles, the county would require an annual safety inspection, as well as proof of registration, ownership and an adequate level of insurance. Companies also would be required to provide proposed customer rates and fees, which would be subject to a determination by the Board of Supervisors or the sheriff as to whether or not they are excessive. The measures are anticipated to cost upwards of $100.

For drivers, requirements would include proof of a valid California driver's license, results from mandatory drug and alcohol tests and fingerprinting, which the sheriff's office would use to perform criminal background checks. The measures are anticipated to cost upwards of $300.

Some taxi operators have said such rules, many of which are already standard, are a bureaucratic headache that put financial strain on their businesses, resulting in extra costs for customers.

Permit delays under Santa Rosa's new rules "have been an absolute nightmare," said John Myerson, manager of Santa Rosa Golden Cab.

He said a backlog in paperwork has forced his cabbies and others to operate without official approval.

"The county needs to learn from that and make sure that doesn't happen again," Myerson said.

Santa Rosa Police Lt. Jerry Soares acknowledged the city's process has been slowed by a large volume of recent applications. But those taxi operators had a one-year grace period in which to get approval, and many waited until the last minute, he said.

"I wouldn't say it's a backup," he said.

Santa Rosa police have been ticketing cabs operating without city permits and would continue to do so, Soares said.

The Board of Supervisors is set to weigh in on the county proposal in late February or early March. If approved then, it would go into effect in early June.

The county proposal does not impose franchise fees, which are included in many of the city ordinances governing taxi businesses.

Other local cities that have taxi regulations include Healdsburg, Petaluma, Rohnert Park, Cotati and Sebastopol.

You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.

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