May 2015

Mayor Tory: Please stop Toronto’s sweeping attack on private property

by Peter McSherry

(Editor’s note: This is an open letter to Toronto Mayor John Tory that was also sent to all City councillors and all of the city’s major news media.)

You might remember me, Mayor Tory, as a taxi driver who, perhaps in 2009, drove another man and yourself to Portland and King streets, and who horned into your conversation with the comment, “You seem to know a lot about politics. Perhaps you should run for public office.”

I liked you. I liked the relaxed way you and your friend talked to me. I felt I was respected - and I had no sense at all that you did not have the class to treat any taxi driver who did his job properly well. It was a good fare.

I remember telling you that I was then a taxi driver of almost 40 years experience, that I was a long-time taxi journalist and the author of three books, including Mean Streets: Confessions of a Nighttime Taxi Driver. I know I gave you the names of two City councillors whose negative affect on the taxi industry was then such that I thought, “They should be led out behind City Hall, where, like the dirty dogs that they are, they should be shot and pissed on.”

One of these “dirty dogs,” I’m sorry to say, is now sitting on your knee.

Mayor Tory, the foremost lesson of my 40 years in the taxi industry is that the City of Toronto is the premiere exploiter of the City’s taxi drivers and its property owners – with no serious competition from anyone or anything else since 1978. What the increasingly-indebted City always wants from its taxi industry is more and more money – the cost to the drivers and the industry, no matter. I am prepared to elaborate at length if you care to know more. The “reforms” of 2014 are by far the best example of five major civic pillages of the industry that we have suffered in my time.

I know the taxi “reforms” that passed City Council on February 19 and 20, 2013, predate your present term in office – but, too, I know that you are in a position to stop what was, and surely is, a massive injustice to the private-property plate holders, the shift drivers, the taxi-taking public, the ratepayers and even, I believe, to the faction of drivers who have supported the so-called “reforms.” I suspect, too, that you have not been fully and properly informed. This letter could be 10 pages long, but, herein, I will be brief. The single thing that I am certain that the decent man that l am assuming you are needs to know is that the 3,400-plus equity-taxi plates are definitely private property. It is my information that the following set-speech City inducement to earn a taxi plate as a legal asset (not as a pension as some understood) was presented to beginning drivers during the years between the mid-1960s and 1993. Personally I heard it at a half-day beginning drivers’ orientation school in July, 1971. Many thousands of others surely heard it and many City-employed civil servants must have given it. I believe I remember it quite accurately as follows:

The taxi business is a great business. You can be in it part-time, full-time or you can make it your career. If you choose to make it your career, you must work a minimum five-days-a-week (the instructor had previously warned us that a day in the taxi business was 12 hours) for three years and then, if you have a good record, you can put your name on “the list” (known as The Approved Driver’s List) for your own plate. It will be many years but, eventually, if you still have a good record, you will be issued your own plate. You will be on probation for five years, then, (if you still have a good record), the plate will be yours. You can use it to operate your own business. When you retire, you can sell the plate and live on the money in your retirement.

After that, the taxi operator was issued a tin-plate that said “Owner” with a number underneath – in a day when there were no other classes of Toronto taxi plates yet thought of. Such owner-operator small businessmen were required to supply the taxi-taking public with a new vehicle every few years, and they were required to pay licensing fees that were many times higher than those the City charged mere drivers like myself. Eventually the City plate owners were allowed to lease their plates to other operators – this, I’m certain, so that more money could be gotten by the City from the plate owners themselves. Such small businessmen were treated as a kind of minor aristocracy by the licensing authority and the industry for many years. Such plates have been bought and sold as private property over 50 years – with the City always charging a substantial fee of thousands of dollars, even if the owner was only asking to transfer the plate to his wife’s name.

The City’s contribution was to grant the license – and supervise the industry.

Mayor Tory, taxi owners cannot, unlike other people, go back and live their lives over again. These 3,400-odd people earned or bought what they now have on the City of Toronto’s own word. It is in no way reasonable to throw elderly people – who met all their City-induced obligations faithfully – to the wolves late in life. Nor is it reasonable to destroy myriads of current small businesses, or to disemploy thousands of taxi drivers, or to fix it so that thousands of others make nearly nothing over a period of years. Ask your own legal department about the City’s chances in an impending law suit.

How is this better than what indebted government in Greece does by taking 15 percent of the money it finds in people’s bank accounts? Is not stealing back millions of dollars worth of property the now-badly-indebted City induced mere taxi drivers to earn over half a working lifetime the same thing? If this is okay, who is next?

I know a limousine operator who paid $50,000 for a limo plate, only to have the City evaporate its value. So what’s going on there?

You might like to know that the new and supposedly-better Toronto Taxi License (TTL) is not in any way a viable business. It’s operating costs are over $700-a-day, every day of the week, before the driver makes a dime - and that’s in an already grossly-oversupplied market for taxi service - and Recommendation #50 says the clear intention was that it was to be a one-driver cab.

Mayor Tory, the architect of all of this has created a very expensive and perhaps unfixable taxi-industry mess. He doesn’t understand this industry, nor did he ever. Big money in off-shore plate sales is his apparent motive. After losing a recent skirmish in court, he characterized the plate owners “as a bunch of losers who don’t want to share.” Perhaps he should lead by example. How about he gives up his house to the ratepayers for starters? Or at least his cottage and his car?

Again, Mayor Tory, I believe in your decency. I believe you have been to a great extent misinformed about what the “reforms” that predate your time in office are really all about. I urge you to intervene to fix what you can now. I urge you to support the recommendations of the Licensing and Standards Committee that were made on Tuesday, April 21 - and to advise all City councillors to do the same.

I think, too, Mayor Tory, we need a new system of governance in the industry. We need a say in our economic livelihoods – similar to what they have in Mississauga, where, as I’m told, there’s a board that has equal numbers of representatives of the general public, the industry property holders and the unpropertied drivers. It would be a lot cheaper than what the cost to the ratepayers is going to be now.

Peter McSherry


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