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Thursday, June 6, 2013

Issue of the Week: Milwaukee’s Cabbies Win Again In Court, But…

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It’s not like the Milwaukee Common Council hadn’t been warned that its strict cap on taxicab permits was on shaky constitutional ground.

Back in April, Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Jane Carroll struck down the cap as unconstitutional, since the city could provide no compelling reason as to why it stopped issuing taxicab permits in the early 1990s and began allowing permit-holders to sell them on the private market instead. That created, at least for the Sanfelippo family, a multimillion-dollar empire and a near-monopoly on valuable city assets. At the same time, the city has created hundreds of “urban sharecroppers,” taxi drivers who would never be able to go into business for themselves since they lack the $150,000 needed to purchase one permit whenever a permit should come up for sale.

But instead of acting on Carroll’s April ruling and devising a new taxi permitting policy that would be constitutional, council members decided to not offend the Sanfelippo family and called for a study on the taxicab industry, due in November.

That wasn’t good enough for the judge. Last week, she yet again declared the taxicab permits unconstitutional, but is staying her decision to give the city time to appeal her ruling in court.

So while the cab drivers have won the right to apply for permits and launch their own businesses, they cannot do so until an appeals court reviews the case. Until then, city cabbies will continue to pay high rents to permit owners such as the Sanfelippo family and struggle to make a living.

The judge found that the city created the current permitting system because council members didn’t feel like reviewing permit requests each year. But reviewing permits, whether they’re taxicab permits or liquor licenses, is part of their job and it’s an important form of public oversight that protects city residents and responsible business owners.

Judge Carroll is forcing the Common Council to get back in the taxicab permitting business again. Now it’s up to the Common Council to take advantage of this window of opportunity and break with the Sanfelippo family. The council is going to have to develop a permitting system that doesn’t lead to $150,000 private-market permit sales while enriching one politically powerful family—or the courts will do it for them.