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Battle over taxicab reforms heats up

19th November 2012   ·   0 Comments

With just two months and some change remaining before the Crescent City hosts its 10th NFL Super Bowl in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, tensions are high as the city’s taxi drivers and City Hall continue to grapple over proposed taxicab reforms.

In April, the New Orleans City Council passed 27 ordinances that among other things seek to change the permitting process and mandate the use of credit card machines, GPS devices and security cameras. The changes also include a ban on vehicles that are 10 years or older.

While on the surface the changes appear to be designed to add to the professionalism and safety of the industry, cab drivers have pointed out that the taxicab reforms were imposed on the industry with very little warning and gave them very little time to make what could amount to costly changes that could potentially put them out of business.

A trio of class-action lawsuits have been filed on behalf of taxicab owners and drivers who argue, among other things, that the city is seeking to violate their constitutional rights by staking a claim in ownership of Certificates of Public Necessity and Convenience and implementing taxicab reforms that provide cab drivers will very little time to make the mandatory changes.

Many of the city’s cab drivers say that it is difficult to move forward while there are so many unanswered questions related to the reforms and those who were awarded contracts by the city to implement the mandated changes. For example, while City Hall has estimated that it would cost about $2,500 to make the necessary changes to a single taxicab, some cabbies say it would actually cost some cab drivers as much as 10 times that amount — or $25,000 — to do so. Such a major expense would essentially put many cabdrivers out of business.

A United Cab driver told The Louisiana Weekly Thursday of a fellow driver who recently paid $22,000 for a new vehicle and later learned that the dealership where he purchased the car subsequently raised the cost for the same vehicle to $30,000, no small drop in the bucket.

“That’s what we’re up against,” the cabbie, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told The Louisiana Weekly. “This whole plan to implement sweeping reforms in a short amount of time rather than give both sides a chance to work out the kinks is already causing a feeding frenzy and will lead to opportunists taking advantage of cab drivers who are under the gun to get things up to par before the Super Bowl.

“So much for a mayor and city council who are committed to representing the interests of all of the city’s residents and not just the wealthy or politically connected ones.”

“Why is the city in such a hurry to get this done,” Larry, a United Cab driver, asked The Louisiana Weekly. “We know that changes must be made at some point, but what’s with the rush? The taxicab industry has not stopped the NFL from selecting New Orleans to host the Super Bowl and tourists continue to flock to the city despite the mayor’s low opinion of the city’s cab drivers.

“What isn’t the mayor telling us about this plan to reform the taxicab industry and how many of the vendors chosen by the city to perform various services have contributed to his campaign?”

In Monroe Coleman’s lawsuit against the City of New Orleans, Coleman underscores the fact that Certificates of Public Necessity and Convenience (CPNCs) have been passed down from parents to their children, sold and transferred within the taxicab industry and listed as loan collateral without objection or disruption by the City of New Orleans for more than 50 years.

Coleman also argues in his lawsuit that the Landrieu administration decided to tackle the challenge of reforming the taxicab industry without any semblance of input or participation from those most affected by the proposed reforms — the cab drivers themselves.

With a nod toward the mayor’s proposed Aug. 1, 2012 compliance deadline for all cab drivers, Coleman’s lawsuit, filed by New Orleans attorney Ike Spears, asserts that “the taxicab industry has less than five months from the date of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s March 15 press announcement of his ‘taxicab reform package,’ to come into full compliance with the mandated upgrades of new vehicles and equipment.

“For the named plaintiffs and many taxicab CPNC owners, especially those who own or operate multiple CPNCs, the financial burden placed upon them to come into full compliance with the CNO’s ‘unfunded mandates’ is cost-prohibitive, especially short period of time,” the lawsuit continues.

Attorney Jack Culotta told WRNO recently that local and state legal proceedings have supported the property rights of families who have owned CPNCs for generations. “It’s very scary,” he said. “Some of these people have worked their whole lives to get the right to be able to earn that CPNC. What’s even more amazing is that that right has been recognized by the state courts for about 70 years through successions, community property settlements, sales, mortgages, etc.

“If I received this through succession, I’d have to go to the City of New Orleans and they would then put their stamp of approval on it. But now they’re saying in one fell swoop that CPNCs are privileges, not rights.”

In an interview with WWL-TV after Judge Paulette Irons on July 20 issued a temporary restraining order blocking the reforms, which were scheduled to take effect August 1, Monroe Coleman, applauded Judge Irons’ ruling and said that taxi drivers are only seeking “fairness.”

“We’re pleased with the judge’s decision,” Coleman said. “We don’t want to have to jump through hoops that other drivers and city contractors don’t have to jump through. We believe the new laws required our drivers to do too much, too fast at too much expense. The laws were unreasonable. All we want is fair play.”

“We are confident the law is on our side,” City Hall spokesman Ryan Berni told WWL-TV in the same story. “For more than a generation, our taxicabs have not met the high standards our residents and visitors deserve. After working with taxicab industry stakeholders for nearly two years, the City Council passed our sweeping reform package which is set to modernize the taxicab experience and improve taxicab passenger and driver safety in New Orleans by early 2013.”

Several class-action lawsuits were filed on behalf of New Orleans taxicab owners and drivers, prompting Judge Eldon Fallon to consolidate the cases, move the case to federal court and give the plaintiffs’ attorneys several weeks to prepare for trial.

“We needed immediately to take action because the property-right issues that the city enacted was such a wrong thing — it was an unconstitutional taking,” attorney Jack Culotta told WRNO during a recent interview. “We needed to address that.”

Culotta told WRNO that it defies logic that the city would require cab drivers to install credit card machines when Smartphones are clearly more cost-effective and sensible.

Culotta says the city has been providing the public with inaccurate information about the time they have given cab drivers to make the proposed changes.

“Cities like Chicago took three years and they did it in conjunction with the industry and city,” Culotta WRNO. “Washington took four years. This ordinance was passed in late April. …When we saw the law, we knew that the issue was property rights and that the taking of the CPNC was unconstitutional.”

Attorney David McDonald, Culotta’s co-counsel, told WRNO that cabbies are not going to back down from a fight with City Hall over such a high-stakes issue like property rights.

“The ordinance about the CPNCs was a line in the sand for the cab industry,” McDonald said. “The City Council and the Taxicab Bureau have done a lot to the cab drivers over the past 60 or 70 years. New laws and rules come out all the time and they deal with it. But once you decided that they were going to take away the property that they’ve worked for for so long, they drew a line in the sand and said, ‘No, that’s it. We’re gonna start fighting again.’

“That’s what the city wants — they want everything upgraded for the Super Bowl,” McDonald added. “The problem is we don’t know how to do that in time.”

Culotta added that the city is adding to the woes of cab drivers by undermining their ability to use their CPNCs as loan collateral to make the necessary upgrades to their vehicles. “According to city officials, only about 450 of the 1,551 cab drivers have been able to do the upgrades. Some people have the wherewithal, others don’t,” Culotta told WRNO. “They needed that property right in order to do the upgrade.”

Although Culotta clearly believes he is fighting for the good guys in this legal battle, he says a great of time and energy might be saved if the City of New Orleans agreed to sit down and negotiate with cab drivers.

“If the city would sit down and talk with us, which we’ve asked them to do several times, we could hopefully work something out,” Culotta told WRNO. “They would give us our property rights — we understand that change is coming. As David said, we want clean, better cabs as well.

“The problem is there’s not enough time to adapt to the changes,” he added. “The vendors can’t get them in. There’s nightmare after nightmare in terms of stories.”

“You’re taking away a valuable property right from someone who is in the line of duty all the time,” David McDonald told WRNO. “It’s a very dangerous job, a thankless job. They are underappreciated and you’ve got the City of New Orleans continuing to underappreciate them.”

The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal is expected to hear the case in early December.

*Additional reporting by Louisiana Weekly editor Edmund W. Lewis.

This article originally published in the November 19, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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