Taxi issues probed in Oak Bluffs
Oak Bluffs town officials will schedule a public hearing in the coming weeks to address a number of issues about taxis, including a late night surcharge that sometimes doubles the cost of cab service.
Cab company operators will make a case for better communication from the town when selectmen take actions like changing the closing hours of local bars.
The public hearing will be conducted by the town's traffic and parking committee, which is chaired by police chief Erik Blake. The board of selectmen holds the authority to set rates and regulate the cab companies.
Ron DiOrio, chairman of the board of selectmen, said there is a consensus of thought among selectmen to end the practice of raising fares at about the time Oak Bluffs bars are closing.
"The public policy objective is to do just the opposite," said Mr. DiOrio. "We want to make it easier for people to call a cab. The issue is not how much this is going to cost, the issue should be getting a person who has had too much to drink off the road."
Ryan Fisher, owner of Atlantic Cab, said he doubles fares between 2 am and 6 am, to cover the cost of keeping drivers on duty at those hours, and the extra costs and time involved in dealing with difficult passengers. Other cab companies have different late night rates and hours.
"If I could shut down at 11 pm, I would," said Mr. Fisher. "Driving drunks is not fun. The slurs you get, the vomiting in the cab, the breaking of windows. Sometimes you get two parties of five, and they get in a fight. That happens all the time. You've got to deal with these people, and they're wasted. My personal thought, I don't want it, I don't want my drivers on the road."
Oak Bluffs taxi regulations require that at least one cab company be operating at every hour of the day, but the regulations leave it to the cab companies to arrange 24-hour coverage, according to Sgt. George Fisher, who handles the police department's role in regulating the companies.
Mr. Fisher (owner of Atlantic Cab and no relation to Sgt. Fisher) said losing the late night surcharge would affect his business, but it is something he would gladly handle.
"I agree with them (selectmen)," said Mr. Fisher. "That's not fair. We can work together to come up with a solution."
Rates and other taxi issues boiled over at the July 8 selectmen's meeting. Mr. Fisher and Chris Dacunto, owner of Tisbury Taxi, were at the meeting to discuss the recent change in closing hours for Oak Bluffs bars. Earlier this year, following recommendations from police chief Erik Blake, selectmen authorized a half-hour extension to the cut-off time for serving alcohol, from 12:30 am to 1 am, and corresponding extension to the time everyone is required to leave bars, from 1 am to 1:30 am. However, police still strictly enforce a no-admittance policy to any establishment after 12:30 pm, the same time Edgartown bars offer last call. The policy went into effect for a five-week trial period.
Mr. Dacunto said the change in "last call" has made the job of driving a taxi much more difficult, and he was angered at the change.
"I've already had more people puke in my cab this summer than I had all of last year," said Mr. Dacunto. In a later conversation with The Times, Mr. DiOrio said he is more than willing to work with taxi companies toward compromise, but he said dealing with difficult customers is not the issue.
"Go into another business if that's the problem," said Mr. DiOrio. "I do not want that difficult customer behind the wheel."
Though it was not scheduled on the public agenda, selectmen discussed the later closing hours near the end of their meeting, after the issue was raised by selectman Kerry Scott. By that time, the cab company owners had left. Chief Blake told selectmen that managing public order has not been affected by the later bar closing, and had made the job of dispersing crowds and controlling noise easier for police. After hearing from Chief Blake, selectmen voted unanimously to make the policy change permanent.
Mr. Fisher questioned the action, in a conversation with The Times this past Monday. He said the agenda confused him, and he thought discussion of the issue was over, after the earlier scheduled agenda item calling for a discussion of taxi rates, so he left the meeting.
"I didn't even get a chance to speak," said Mr. Fisher. "I don't think the taxi companies are respected, there's a disconnect. It can be connected, it's not the end of the world. This can be resolved. Everyone needs to take a deep breath."
One suggestion Mr. Fisher wanted to promote was the use of Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA) buses to help get people home safely after bar closings. Currently, bus service from Oak Bluffs ends at 12 pm.
"If everyone is so concerned, as am I, why don't they make the VTA stay open?" asked Mr. Fisher. "Why don't they go until 2 in the morning, that would be a tremendous help to the police."
At the July 8 meeting, selectman Greg Coogan urged cab drivers and owners to come to the public hearing in a spirit of cooperation and compromise.
"It's our job to license the cabs, and it's also our job to protect the public," said Mr. Coogan. "The playing field has changed, it's a very real concern for us as a town. Get together with the other cab owners and come prepared to work with us. If this is a hostile situation, I think you will suffer from it. I don't think that's in your best interest, and I don't think it's in ours either."