An update to Oakland’s taxi ordinance — which had remained unaltered since 1989 — has shed light on the difficulties of regulating cabs across town lines.

In municipal policies, vague language about reciprocal relationships between towns has resulted in towns not enforcing rules the same way. Cab companies from Oakland and Fairfield end up paying proportionally more each year to license vehicles and drivers than Waterville-based companies do. Taxis are also subject to inconsistent safety regulations across the towns, even though they operate in the same geographic areas and serve an overlapping clientele.

Between Waterville, Oakland and Fairfield, there are eight cab companies, 31 vehicles and 48 drivers, according to licensing records from the municipalities.

Oakland’s town councilors unanimously approved its revised ordinance on Nov. 28. The new regulations outline a reciprocal relationship with Waterville and Fairfield, increase taxi registration fees and require that vehicles be inspected one month prior to the issuance of an Oakland license.

The new rules are effective immediately.

A WATERVILLE ADVANTAGE

According to records from the three towns, Fairfield’s only cab company pays $540 annually to Waterville for vehicle licensing and Oakland’s sole cab company pays $180 annually to Waterville, while three Waterville-based cab companies pay nothing in return to Fairfield or Oakland in order to operate those vehicles within their borders. This can give a financial advantage to companies based out of Waterville, say cab drivers in Oakland and Fairfield.

Local officials from Fairfield and Oakland seem to be under the impression that Waterville only charges vehicle license fees to companies based in its city. A reciprocity clause in the two towns’ taxi ordinances notes that Fairfield and Oakland waive taxicab vehicle and operator licensing fees for companies based in another municipality under the condition that the municipality will not charge Fairfield and Oakland companies for those same expenses.

“Any other town or city that allows taxicabs and drivers licensed by the Town … the right to operate in said town or city, without obtaining a license from said town or city, shall be awarded that same right of operation in the Town … provided that said town or city has a written ordinance that is at least as stringent as the (Town’s taxi ordinance),” states the Oakland policy, which is based on Fairfield’s.

But financially, it is clear that the reciprocal relationship between these municipalities, as far as taxicabs are concerned, runs one way. The only mentioning of a reciprocal relationship in Waterville’s municipal policies is in the fee schedule of its license and permits ordinance, which lists a reduced rate for “duplicates or reciprocal” taxicab operator licenses. No definition is provided to describe how Waterville interprets the term “reciprocal” or what the city intends it to mean. But the city does charge for every vehicle and driver that carries passengers for hire within its borders.

Per the Fairfield and Oakland ordinance, Waterville cab companies should pay either the town of Fairfield or the town of Oakland to license their vehicles in one of those towns. Because of the reciprocity between those two towns, they would not need to get licensed in both towns.

This would amount to $550 annually from Waterville companies, divided among the towns of Fairfield and Oakland, depending on where the businesses chose to register.

Travis Moulton, an owner of Oakland’s sole taxi company, Oakland Taxi, has found this reality frustrating. He pays to license his vehicles in Oakland and in Waterville.

“The ones doing it right shouldn’t be penalized because of the ones doing it wrong,” he said.

Rod Boisvert, who manages WTVL Taxi, thinks that having to pay multiple towns for vehicle licensing fees is unnecessary.

“Of course it is (a pain). You’ve gotta figure how many towns are around us. You’re telling me I have to get licensed in every town? That would make a lot of people upset,” said Boisvert.

All three municipalities charge taxicab vehicle license fees to companies based in their towns. It costs $50 to register a cab for one year in Fairfield and now, Oakland as well. It costs $60 per cab in Waterville. Previously, it cost $25 per vehicle in Oakland.

While Fairfield currently charges Waterville cab companies to license each driver that picks up passengers in the town, Oakland does not, and has not expressed plans to in the future, even with its new ordinance that suggests otherwise.

VEHICLE SAFETY STRICTEST IN OAKLAND

Aside from inconsistent fees, a taxi company’s vehicles can be subject to different safety standards based on the town it registers the cabs with.

One of the biggest updates to Oakland’s taxi ordinance involved a mandate that any vehicle being issued a taxicab license by the town be inspected by the state within the previous month of the issuance of an Oakland license. Fairfield and Waterville each require state inspections to have occurred within the prior year, rather than month — and this used to be the case in Oakland as well. All three municipalities enforce an annual visual inspection by their chiefs of police as part of the taxicab licensing process.

However, since Oakland Taxi is the sole company currently being required to license its vehicles with the town of Oakland, its three vehicles — out of 31 that operate in the area — are the only ones subject to this policy.

Oakland Councilor Don Borman proposed the stricter state inspection rule at a council meeting in October.

“Even if they’ve already had one four months prior, (this can) assure us — (in terms of) our consciences and our liabilities — that we didn’t allow that car to receive a license if they couldn’t show at that time that they have an inspectable vehicle,” Borman said. “I just worry that someone had a 10-month-old inspection sticker and they come in and they don’t have any brakes and we’re giving them a license. I think we should be a little bit more protective.”

His concern stemmed from the upstate New York limo crash in October that killed 20 people. Reports showed that the vehicle involved in that incident had failed at least one inspection — and that the driver was not licensed to operate it.

Even though Oakland’s ordinance states that a reciprocal relationship with another municipality is contingent on that town’s policies being “at least as stringent as” its own, Town Manager Gary Bowman said that Oakland will not start making taxicabs from other towns adhere to this specific inspection requirement.

“If they’re licensed with another town, we’re good with it,” said Bowman. “As long as there’s some governance.”

Moulton has no choice but to comply.

“I don’t like that part, but I understand what they mean by it,” he said.

Borman acknowledged that the added safety regulations would be difficult to enforce since the town does not require other towns’ taxis to get licensed, but said that he hopes the rule will at least help vehicles from Oakland be as safe as possible.

“I guess the way that we discussed it was that if we were issuing the license, we could be as proactive as possible to make sure that the cars were inspected very close to the licensing time,” said Borman. “It’s not the end all and be all and what would probably be best, but we just want to make sure — we want to be doing our best.”

Officials said that they did not intend for the rule to create difficulties for Oakland Taxi in particular.

“(Moulton)’s got a new car and he does a good job, but you never know who gets into the business,” Bowman said. “The last thing we want is for a car to have bad brakes. It’s just about the safety.”

BACKGROUND CHECKS

All taxicab operators in the area receive a state background check every year, coordinated through their local police department. These cost roughly $21 dollars per person.

In order to avoid making drivers pay multiple municipalities to run the same background check, Fairfield and Waterville police departments established an agreement. Waterville will accept a Fairfield-run state background check and Fairfield will accept a Waterville-run one, as long as the departments can validate their authenticity with each other.

“We will accept other towns background checks as long as they match the process that they follow here,” said Fairfield Chief of Police Tom Gould. “If they came to us and said they had a background check done in another jurisdiction, we’d call, and if it was (the same as ours), we’d accept without charging an additional fee.”

Gould said that he is open to extending this relationship to Oakland. Fairfield Town Clerk Christine Keller agreed.

“Oakland has not reached out regarding collaboration, however their recently adopted language would certainly afford them the opportunity to follow the same practice as Waterville,” she said.

But in Waterville, City Clerk Patti Dubois said she was unsure whether the city would accept Oakland’s background checks like it does Fairfield’s.

“Our ordinance doesn’t specifically allow it,” said Dubois.

She noted that every taxicab operator that she has dealt with has already had a background check through Fairfield. In the past, she has recommended that drivers get licensed in Fairfield prior to Waterville because it can reduce fees. If an operator receives a Fairfield license — which includes a background check — they can pay Waterville $6 for a “reciprocal” license, instead of $20 plus another $21 for a background check through Waterville.

However, there is nothing in Waterville’s ordinance or fee schedule that requires its operators to receive a background check in the first place. There is also no written mention of the city’s relationship with Fairfield with respect to honoring each other’s background checks.

“I’m unsure whether this was a policy that was adopted at some point, either formally or informally,” Dubois wrote in an email. “This policy was in place when I became the clerk, and we’ve simply followed past practice.”

Waterville Chief of Police Joseph Massey was unable to explain this unwritten agreement further.

“We have followed the policy and I cannot add any additional information,” he wrote in an email.

Oakland’s new ordinance states that after the first year, it will charge for background checks before issuing operators’ licenses, even to individuals licensed in reciprocating communities like Fairfield.

Bowman said that he will stand by Oakland’s written policy. But since the town doesn’t currently track or record drivers that operate in its borders, it is unclear whether or how it will enforce the policy.

Unless Waterville amends its ordinance to accept Oakland’s background checks or Oakland starts licensing all cab drivers who work in the town, Oakland Taxi will be the only area cab company forced to pay for two state background checks for each of its drivers.

STATE REGULATION A SOLUTION?

As Oakland councilors discussed making updates to the town’s taxi ordinance, several recognized challenges in regulating cab operations on a municipal level.

This is no secret to taxi drivers either.

“We’re in and out so fast no one knows,” said Boisvert, of WTVL Taxi.

“I don’t know how you would handle it if you had a taxi company in every town and they all had different ways of doing something, but they crossed over. I don’t know how you would control that unless the state came up with something,” said Borman.

State-level mandates on taxis are limited to requiring minimum liability insurance coverage and charging a $70 registration fee to acquire “hire” plates.

While transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft operate more or less as taxis, a 2015 Maine law notes that municipalities cannot govern them.

“Why is it fair to make some individual who wants to start a taxi company in Oakland have to follow the rules and have to get the plate and pay the money and then I decided to truck people around town in my Uber vehicle and I don’t have to pay anything (to the town)?” said Oakland Councilor Bob Nutting at an October meeting. Nutting was a state representative at the time the transportation network company bill passed. “It just kind of makes you wonder why the hell would we bother with a taxi ordinance.”

While Uber and Lyft do not have many drivers in the immediate Waterville area, there are several throughout the state that could, at any time, transport a passenger into a nearby town and then pick up a local passenger afterwards. Communications representatives from Uber and Lyft declined to provide the number of drivers their companies employ in Maine.

There has been some backlash to the law that put the governance of Uber and Lyft into state control in June 2015. Gov. Paul LePage vetoed the bill originally. After it passed in the legislature, Former Sen. Anne Haskell submitted a bill in September 2015 to give municipalities the power to regulate ride share companies, after officials and taxi drivers voiced complaints about the law putting local taxi owners at a disadvantage, especially at airports. It did not pass. In 2017, a similar piece of legislation, which allowed municipal regulation over transportation networks at airports, was ultimately rejected.

LOOKING AHEAD

Fairfield will discuss amending its taxi ordinance at its next town council meeting on Wednesday. Town Clerk Christine Keller wrote that revisions to be considered include the “removal of setting rates, and transferring fees solely to the Town’s Fee Schedule.”

Waterville does not currently have plans to discuss its policies about taxis.

Meg Robbins — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @megrobbins


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