By Amy Patton
Amid a fair amount of protestations from local taxicab operators and drivers who showed up at Thursday’s East Hampton Town Board meeting, new guidelines for handling taxi licenses and operations were floated before the public in the form of a public hearing on the matter.
The board’s goal: a reform and revamping of the direction in which car transportation for hire in the town will continue in the future. The effort is focused with an eye towards improved safety in the form of driver background checks, fingerprinting, additional insurance and limits on vehicle age and mileage.
Just as important, remarked East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson, is the proposed regulation’s intent to limit the number of out-of-town taxi businesses that can operate locally.
Of concern, he added, is the protection of livery companies which provide service within East Hampton Town’s borders and whose daily operations employ local residents.
“With this legislation,” said the supervisor, “we’re trying to limit the number of operators and attempting to ensure that business owners — local residents — here have a greater chance of serving people who live in the town.”
“When you have a limited amount of licenses available to give out, that means there are certain restrictions that have to be put into place,” he added.
Contained in the draft is also a stipulation that a taxi or limousine business applying for or renewing a license with the town “must be required to maintain a physical business address within the Town of East Hampton.”
However, Carole Brennan, deputy town clerk, assured that the “office” may be located within a driver or owner’s residential home with, she said, “a proper certificate of occupancy.”
Some cab drivers and owners who spoke at Thursday’s meeting balked at other details contained in the proposal, including a potential rise in auto and liability insurance coverage greater than what is required by state law. A few in attendance expressed dismay at the likelihood that some vehicles in their fleets might be too old to pass inspection by the town under the new legislation if it becomes law.
“It’s really, really easy in a busy day to put 500 miles on one of my cars,” said Ted Kopoulos, owner of East West Taxi in East Hampton, who currently has a fleet of 10 vehicles.
Under the proposal, a vehicle must be under 10 years old or have less than 250,000 miles on its odometer.
“That’s not right,” Kopoulos said. “As long as the cab runs great, is properly maintained, looks good and is safe, I don’t think it should matter how many miles it has on it. What am I supposed to do, go out and buy all new cars?”
Another driver remarked that, in what is often used as a cost-saving measure, new engines are sometimes installed to replace worn-out ones.
Rather than replacing the vehicle, it makes it a less expensive option for the owner.
He noted that such an improvement would not be reflected in the car’s odometer.
Other than that issue, said Kopoulos, he admitted he agrees with most of the legislation’s revamping, including the implementation of driver screening for past criminal behavior such as felony arrests or even convictions for sex-related crimes.
“We pick up passengers as young as 10 and as old as 95,” he explained. “A lot of times when you get into a cab, it’s just you and the driver. My insurance company only screens my employees for things like past DWIs and warrants. It doesn’t check for sex offenses. Neither does the DMV when someone applies for a class C license. I would be for that. We don’t want sex offenders driving for us.”
“That’s why this public hearing is so beneficial to the board,” countered Wilkinson. “We want an honest, open forum to discuss this and we will take into account the remarks from people who work in this industry in our community.”
At the end of the public hearing Thursday, the board promised that the town attorney’s office will go back to work to consider softening and reworking — “tweaking” — some of the changes that have local cab drivers, limousine services and company owners concerned.
The final redo of the proposed municipal law, Wilkinson said, should be up for a vote by the board sometime early this year. He added that, once the changes are signed into law, local police will be instructed to enforce the new regulations, including ticketing those who are not in compliance.
“The net result of these restrictions will result in a smaller number of cab companies doing business out here,” noted the supervisor. “That’s quite obvious. It should also make enforcement easier for the police.”
Having new restrictions in place by Memorial Day weekend, when cab service demands begin to ramp up in East Hampton and Sag Harbor, is a goal the board hopes to meet.
“We’ll have a finer product on this after going into a work session and possibly even holding another public hearing” on the matter, said the supervisor.
“I sure as heck hope,” he said, laughing, “that this will get done in time for summer.”