Kevin Sandberg says he's on the verge of bankruptcy. He says competitors have defamed him and the Montana Public Service Commission won't get off his back. But Sandberg refuses to give up on Ucallus, his non-profit, donation-funded taxi service dedicated to driving home Missoula's would-be drunk drivers. And it appears he'll be able to keep his cars on the road now that the IRS, on Dec. 6, granted Ucallus 501(c)(3) status, the key to sidestepping PSC oversight that has stymied other start-up cab companies in the past.
Ucallus incorporated and applied for non-profit status in March. In June, Sandberg's attorney asked the PSC to clarify whether it has jurisdiction over non-profits. The PSC ruled in October that it does not—nor, the commission said, does it have jurisdiction over motor carriers that don't assess fees or accepts tips. Because Ucallus doesn't technically collect either—just optional donations—Sandberg and his attorney took that as permission to begin operation. And Sandberg did.
But then the PSC pumped the brakes on Ucallus. On Nov. 30, Kate Whitney, the PSC's regulatory division administrator, wrote to Sandberg to inform him that until the IRS officially approves Ucallus's non-profit application, it could accept "absolutely no remuneration of any kind." Because Sandberg already had taken donations, the PSC issued fines totaling more than $1,000, which he refused to pay.
Not that Sandberg could have afforded to. He says nine months of attorney fees has put the start-up in jeopardy; he might need to lay off a driver or two. Besides dealing with the PSC, he's taken on Yellow Cab, Missoula's primary taxi service. Its owner, Victor Hill, has pilloried Ucallus as a spurious attempt to skirt state regulation. On Sept. 23, Sandberg's attorney wrote to Yellow Cab, claiming the company had defamed Sandberg and threatening legal action.
Other than all that, Sandberg says, Ucallus is succeeding. The service's four cars have been busy. Two weekends ago, he says, Ucallus safely drove 62 intoxicated people home. He says about 20 percent of the service's users don't give a donation, and about 40 percent give $5 or less. But once in a while, a rider gives a large donation—like several weeks ago, when someone gave Sandberg $80—and it all evens out.
"We're here to get the people home and keep the streets safe," Sandberg says. "That's the bottom line."