Toronto Council actions embarrass & humiliate widow of taxi driver

By Jessica Smith Cross
June 24, 2014
Updated: June 24, 2014 | 5:49 pm

Toronto ‘taxi widows’ denounce city’s overhaul of taxi industry

A group of women known as “taxi widows” spoke at a press conference Tuesday denouncing city council’s overhaul of the taxi industry.

“The first thing I have to say is this is the most embarrassing, humiliating thing to have to go through, to put your problems out in public,” said Doris Kostyck.

Kostyck, 83, was among a small group of women assembled by the taxi industry group called the Toronto Taxicab Alliance to tell their own stories about how the changes will affect them.

Kostyck’s story was typical of the taxi widows. Her husband Leo was a driver for 40 years.

“He got knifed, he got robbed, all the things that cab drivers do,” she said.

He passed away 23 years ago and she has been living off the leasing income from the two plates.

Under the rules approved by city council that take effect in July, she will be able to continue to lease the plates for the next 10 years but then must sell to someone who will drive the taxis — not lease them as she does now.

“I’m in a dire straight and don’t know which way to turn,” she said. “And I have Parkinson’s disease to look forward to.”

Leasing plates is typically more lucrative than selling them outright and, according to the industry group, the uncertainty surrounding the changes to the system have made the value of the plates — often sold for more than $300,000 before the changes — fall significantly.

The highest sale price since the reforms were passed in February was $232,000. Most of the 60 sales since then have been for less than $200,000. The average of plates sold (for more than a nominal amount, which indicates a transfer between family members), fell from about $250,000 in 2012 to $134,000 since the council decision.

The group has filed a lawsuit that seeks to stop the changes, arguing that council’s decision violated procedure, and will be in court Wednesday arguing for an injunction to stop the city from proceeding while the suit moves through the courts.

Kostyck disputed the stereotype, talked of by city councillors and staff at the meeting when the decision was made, of the absentee plate owner as owning many plates and living off the leasing income while sipping drinks in Florida.

“I have a son living down there,” she said. “They all threw in for my flight and health insurance and I went down to visit at Christmas.”

Just how representative the widows are of plate owners, and exactly who owns multiple plates, is unclear. City records show that 56 companies have five or more licences, 14 have 10 or more. The top two companies have 18 plates each.

However, dozens of numbered companies own plates, so who controls the companies — and the true concentration of plates — is not publicly known.

The councillors who voted for the industry reforms did so mainly to improve the lives of shift drivers, who rent time in taxis and have long complained about working long hours that often leave them coming home with less than the equivalent of minimum wage.

By transitioning to a system where the owner of the taxi plate must drive the taxi, the reforms are intended to cut out the middlemen and leave more money for drivers.

Plates cannot be willed

One woman was in a different situation than the others. Gail Bouchard’s sister, Beverly Chilton, was a taxi widow and passed away recently. Bouchard is the executive of her sister’s will and responsible for the financial well being of her sister’s intellectually disabled adult son.

Under the city’s rules, plates can’t be willed, so she has one year to sell her sister’s two plates to provide for her nephew. Where she may have gotten a total of $600-700,000 for the pair plates if she’d sold them a year ago, she believes she’ll get significantly less if she tries today.

Bouchard said the uncertainty about the changes has made the plates hard to sell and the lawsuit has made that worse.

“The price of the cabs has dropped dramatically,” she said. “… no one who wants to buy them because of the bylaws changing.”