Mayor Mitch Landrieu wasted little time Thursday in rejecting the City Council's one-year delay of a new law that would have required all taxis operating in New Orleans to be no older than seven years. His veto effectively gives those cab owners not in compliance less than seven weeks to find newer vehicles -- or another line of work.
"For too long, taxicabs had been cited as an impediment to attracting new businesses, conventions, major events and leisure travelers to New Orleans," Landrieu said in a written statement. "Local residents regularly expressed major concerns about reliability, vehicle appearance and safety. With the help of the New Orleans City Council, we passed sweeping reforms in 2012 that resulted in cleaner, newer and more reliable cabs on the streets of New Orleans."
For more than a year, the administration had allowed cabs as old as 11 "model years" to continue operating while the New Orleans Taxi & For Hire Bureau rolled out the sweeping regulatory changes. That policy appears headed toward an end on Dec. 31.
Several drivers and city residents spoke out Thursday against the so-called reform package.
"If their compliance is based upon the year of the car, then you are conditioning them according to your pocketbook," resident Donald Chopin told the City Council. "You're saying: 'You can't afford, your pocket's not deep enough, to buy a brand new taxi, you can't afford to be in (the) taxi business.' I think that's blatantly unfair."
Taxi owners and their supporters had celebrated earlier Thursday afternoon when the council eked out an extension with a 4-3 vote. Despite the Landrieu administration's protests, Councilman James Gray persuaded his colleagues LaToya Cantrell, Cynthia Hedge-Morrell and Stacy Head to support his measure extending the deadline to Dec. 31, 2014.
"I think what we're asking for in this ordinance is targeted, limited and reasonable," he said.
Their victory was short-lived, and that close a vote doesn't bode well for any effort to overturn Landrieu's veto. Gray would need five votes from the council to do that.
"I don't think we're going to win on this issue," he said afterward. "But it did make everyone (on the council) say out loud that we need to help the taxi drivers" with the costs of the reforms.
Landrieu's rare rejection of a City Council action all but ensures that the changes to the taxi industry that the council approved in April 2012 and that withstood a legal challenge in August 2012 will be fully implemented by Jan. 1.
Before Thursday's vote, Malachi Hull, Landrieu's director of the Taxi & For Hire Bureau, said 75 percent of the city's more than 1,600 cabs were already in full compliance with the new regulations. He recited a list of individual drivers and cab companies that have already met the earlier deadline and upgraded their cabs.
"You'd be putting them at a competitive disadvantage if you roll back or delay any of the reforms," he said.
"The administration stands behind that ordinance is it was adopted," said Landrieu's top liaison to the council, Eric Granderson. He said that the mayor had agreed to an earlier delay for the reforms. "We believe that at this particular state, that any additional extension is not called for. We believe also it is a bit unfair to the vast majority of taxicab owners in this city that are in compliance with the law as it is."
Inundated with complaints that the new regulations are overly burdensome on drivers' incomes, the City Council, Landrieu's administration, cab company owners and drivers' representatives are deep in talks about ways to increase revenue for the industry. During the past 14 months, cab owners have had to install security cameras, credit card machines and GPS devices, among other measures, to pass inspections. The ongoing negotiations could produce a higher price on the fixed rate for trips to the airport in Kenner, some sort of equipment fee passed on to passengers or raises in fares across the board, council members speculated.
Granderson told the council that the mayor was amenable to keeping those discussions moving forward.
"I would like us to move that along as quickly as possible," Councilwoman Susan Guidry said.