April 20 2012 | Latest NewsAfter five hours of debate, the council approved all 24 ordinances presented Thursday...
Taxi rule changes approved by New Orleans City Council
Published: Thursday, April 19, 2012, 11:59 PM
Michelle Krupa, The Times-Picayune By Michelle Krupa, The Times-Picayune
[caption id="attachment_10072" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Mavis Early spoke in favor of increased taxi regulations."][/caption]
Credit card machines, satellite-navigation devices, surveillance cameras and functioning air-conditioning will have to be standard fare in New Orleans cabs by Aug. 1, after the New Orleans City Council on Thursday adopted most of the provisions of a package of taxi industry overhauls proposed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu. The new laws, designed to improve the experience of visitors and heighten driver safety, also make it illegal for cabbies to tip hotel doormen for directing them fares and to bribe taxicab bureau employees.
After five hours of debate, the council approved all 24 ordinances presented Thursday, though the slate didn't include several proposed fee increases tied to the retention and transfer of taxi permits, known as CPNCs, or Certificates of Public Necessity and Convenience. Landrieu agreed late Wednesday to kill those proposals as a concession to the industry.
Meanwhile, Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer, who authored the draft laws on the mayor's behalf, said she will hold public hearings in coming weeks to consider the imposition of a fee or a fare increase to help cabbies pay for the new equipment, which the parties estimate would cost between $2,000 and $6,000.
She also promised to consider limiting how far back investigators can look into a driver's criminal record in light of the recent revocation of permits held by longtime drivers for minor offenses committed several decades ago.
After hearing numerous complaints from cabbies about long lines and inconsistent service at the taxicab inspection station -- and after United Cab Co. President Sheree Kerner showed a video of drivers who claimed to have been waiting all day for an inspection -- Palmer promised to demand improvement at the city-run facility. If service doesn't improve, Palmer said, she will push to delay the new vehicle standards.
The council pulled back slightly on a proposal that would have required taxis to be 10 years old or newer starting this year, and 7 years old or newer by 2014. Councilwoman Stacy Head said she was "really nervous about the capital outlay that's going to be required" for the owners of older taxis to comply.
To ease the burden, the council voted to require taxis to be 11 years old or younger starting Aug. 1. The 2014 standard went unchanged.
Council members also stressed their support for a provision that would allow only a Police Department or taxicab bureau employee to review footage from onboard surveillance cameras. The employees would only be allowed to look at video from a narrow time period as described in a formal incident or complaint report.
"I just want to make sure that whatever security system we put in we are going to be able to give these people privacy," Councilman Jon Johnson said, noting that many cabbies use their taxis as personal vehicles in off-hours.
With both the vehicle-age and camera mandates, taxicab bureau chief Malachi Hull said the proposed standards align with regulations in cities that compete with New Orleans for tourists, including New York City, Chicago, Atlanta and Houston. But cabdrivers and owners bristled each time Hull offered a comparison.
"Mr. Malachi, with all due respect, they didn't give you the keys to the city of Atlanta," 19-year veteran driver Tony Makhoul said. "You have no clue how the transportation industry in the city of New Orleans works."
Permit owners lost a major point of dispute when the council affirmed the characterization of their CPNCs as privileges issued at the discretion of a city official, not pieces of property to which they can claim a right of ownership.
Johnson, who with Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell voted against the measure, said he didn't understand how permits that owners long have used to secure loans and that recently traded for $65,000 apiece on the city-regulated secondary market simply could be revoked by a bureaucrat.
"I don't know how we can rationally say to someone that ... (the) investment can be taken away from him or her without properly compensating that person," he said.
Michelle Krupa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3312.
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