Council debates news taxicab regulations

By Alex Bridges

FRONT ROYAL – Taxicab companies operating in Front Royal may face strict rules if Town Council approves an ordinance that adds new regulations.

Town Attorney Douglas Napier drafted the ordinance that he said should make taxicabs and patrons more safe. But Councilman Bret Hrbek, when the ordinance was proposed at a council work session on Monday, showed his opposition and asked why the ordinance had come before council.

Napier said the police department “feels that it is needed in Front Royal.”

The ordinance has support from Tony Elar, owner of Yellow Cab of Shenandoah, who spoke favorably of the regulations.

“The reason I feel strongly about this is not to eliminate the competition, just to level the playing field,” Elar said, noting he conducts random drug tests of his drivers and does not hire those who have felony convictions.

Town Manager Steven Burke explained the proposed ordinance comes in response to complaints about taxicabs. Burke said that in recent years the town has received complaints that a taxicab driver would take a fare to a destination, but on the way would pick up a second or third rider. Most municipalities with taxicab regulations prohibit this practice, Burke said. But without regulations, taxicab drivers may pick up as many fares as they like in town, he noted.

“We’ve also had complaints about the condition of the taxis as well as concerns about those that are operating [taxicabs],” Burke said.

Hrbek recalled that council took up the same issue when he first served as a member about four or five years ago.

“Don’t use that taxi company anymore if you don’t like the service you’re getting,” Hrbek said.

But Councilman Hollis Tharpe and others voiced support for the ordinance as a way to address issues of safety and appearance of the taxicabs and the drivers.

“I think it pretty much cleans up a lot of problems,” Tharpe said.

Hrbek noted that he would seek service from a different company should the one he called not appear clean or safe.

Currently, three companies operate a total of 20-25 taxicabs in the town, Burke said.

Mayor Timothy Darr polled council and decided members needed to further discuss the proposal before calling a public hearing.

Under the proposed ordinance, taxicab companies would eed to obtain from the town a certificate of public convenience and necessity at a cost of $100. The certificate requires the owner to have certain vehicle insurance and proper identification in the taxicabs. The owner would need to publish its rates and keep a record of calls for service.

A driver also would need to meet certain requirements in order to obtain a permit to operate a taxicab in town. The proposed regulations would bar anyone with certain criminal convictions or registered sex offenders from receiving the $25 permit. The permit would remain valid for one year. Under the proposed rule, the town could revoke a driver’s permit for certain violations committed while operating the taxicab. Vehicles also would require safety inspections.

“As far as some of these requirements, this isn’t really verbose,” Elar said, noting that the proposed ordinance mirrors regulations in Winchester. He said the No. 1 reason why taxicab ordinances are needed is to protect citizens.

The owner noted that when he first started his business he entered an agreement with Pamela McInnis, superintendent of Warren County Public Schools, that he would not hire drivers with felony convictions.

The company also benefits from hiring safe drivers. Even minor collisions can cost the company in higher insurance premiums, Elar noted.

Elar urged council to adopt the proposed regulations.

Hrbek said said he understands the safety issue. “I’m not voting for this because I think you’re taking people who don’t have an opportunity for anything else, they don’t have any other money, and you’re raising rates.”

Elar challenged the assertion and noted that fare rates are declining, following gas prices.

Violation of the ordinance could result in penalties such as misdemeanor charges.

Councilman Eugene Tewalt said he feared the regulations would create a hassle for the town and the police department.

Chief Norman A. Shifflett, who helped craft the proposed ordinance, told council he doesn’t see a problem for the department.

“I believe in the beginning it’s going to be very trying for us,” Shifflett said. “But after we get it to where we have talked to each of these companies and we have interviewed each driver I think it will slow down for the police department.”

The chief said the department would perform periodic checks of the taxicab companies.

Tewalt also questioned why taxicab companies would need to keep a record of calls for service as required under the proposed ordinance.

Elar explained it’s a matter of “standard procedure,” Elar explained. The information has served a valuable purpose for law enforcement, he said. The owner said he could recall at least five times in which authorities used call logs to investigate crimes committed either in Front Royal or Warren County and to build cases against suspects.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com