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Dan Hust | Democrat

From the left, Alan Kesten, Michael Banks and Gary Putter all spoke out about the taxi issue in the Village of Monticello. Kesten owns Yellow Cab while Putter is the owner of Sureway Taxi.

More taxis may soon be available in Monticello

By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO — September 3, 2010 — In a 3-2 vote Tuesday night, Monticello Village Board members eliminated the cap on taxi medallions.
If the amended law takes effect in a month, the two cab companies with the existing 21 medallions (one per cab) will face a potential host of competitors.
But Sureway and Yellow Cab plan to sue, and the court could temporarily halt the enactment of the law.
“We’re hoping we’ll get an injunction and nothing will happen at all until this is settled,” Yellow Cab owner Alan Kesten said on Wednesday, preparing to talk with Sureway owner Gary Putter about their legal options.
On Tuesday, they were two of 17 speakers during the public hearing preceding the vote. The comments represented a very split vision of taxi service in the village.
“Obviously I’m here in opposition,” noted Kesten, who has owned Yellow Cab since 1995 and possesses 16 medallions.
He and Putter warned that there’s not enough demand in Monticello to warrant increasing competition.
“That pie isn’t going to grow any larger,” Kesten predicted. “... So who suffers from that? The taxi drivers. ... There’s no more money in it for them.”
Drivers like Larry Berens affirmed that statement.
“If we don’t have our piece of the pie,” he said, “most of us are going to be back on public assistance.”
Yellow Cab and Sureway’s drivers are paid on commission only. With no base wage, their livelihood is entirely dependent on the number of people they transport.
“A lot of times we make just minimum wage,” said driver Bruce Pollock.
“Who’s really going to take the hit is the working man and woman,” agreed Rolling V owner Phil Vallone, who used to have several medallions himself.
Driver and Monticello resident Douglas Boone said he barely scrapes by now.
“I don’t go to the racino, but every day I gamble,” he remarked, referencing the uncertainty of customer demand. “... If I don’t make $350 a week, you all may be taking my house. ... How am I going to eat? How am I going to make a living?”
Right now, said Putter, drivers “can walk home with an income I think they can be proud of.”
Eliminating the medallion cap, he added, “is going to destroy the pie for everyone.”
But not everyone agreed.
“I think it should be equal opportunity,” urged Monticello businessman Michael Banks.
That thought was echoed by Alan Weir, a Social Services employee who was appalled that a less-than-two-mile cab ride in the village recently cost his daughter $12.
“Two or one cab companies can call the shots,” he lamented. “... Competition and free enterprise means lower prices.”
“We don’t want you to control nothing else here,” added resident Tom Mack in a fiery speech aimed at the cab operators. “And I’m telling our trustees, when it’s time to vote, vote for free enterprise!”
Still, attorneys for the two cab companies painted the new law as a deprivation of their clients’ rights, as putting the public in danger from unscrupulous operators and more traffic, and as setting up a deregulated system that will lead to business failures.
Kesten even hired planner Tom Shepstone to prepare a report indicating no need for more cabs in Monticello.
Shepstone said the key question is, “How many households are there that lack a vehicle?” His research indicated 684 households without a vehicle in 1990, down to 620 in 2009.
Thus, he concluded, “there is little or no change in the demand.”
Shepstone argued that on a per-capita basis, Monticello offers more cabs than many major U.S. cities, pointing out that even neighboring Ellenville has just 2.4 cabs per 1,000 people, compared to Monticello’s 3.2.
But that drew criticism from Middletown resident Christopher Jacques, who has long wanted to create a taxi business in Monticello.
He noted that Ellenville doesn’t regulate the number of medallions. Plus, he said, competition weeds out inferior providers.
“If people are happy with Yellow Cab, why would they go to the next guy?” Jacques pointed out.
It’s the fact that people are unhappy, he added, that’s warranting this change. Though he wouldn’t say for certain, Jacques is expected to launch a new cab service in the village soon.
“The key here is they have now created the opportunity here,” he remarked – the opportunity for anyone to start their own service.
Still, Shepstone and the cab company owners and their attorneys pushed for the village to go slowly, increasing the number of medallions by between five and ten.
They pointed out that no studies had been done recently by the village to demonstrate a need for more – a fact that resonated with trustees Victor Marinello and Carmen Rue.
While he felt that “competition is the way to go,” Marinello said more study was needed first.
Rue agreed, and thus the subsequent vote greatly concerned her.
“The board voted 3-2 ... to eliminate public safety requirements governing taxi medallions, inviting anarchy and surrendering the government’s responsibility to ensure safe public transportation for the residents of the village.”
Save for a brief statement that there was “a significant need” for more cabs in the village, Mayor Gordon Jenkins didn’t provide details behind the impetus for his vote.
In fact, board members discussed it for more than half an hour in closed session with their attorney.
Both Putter and Kesten accused the board majority of engaging in a “done deal” and of not including them in substantive discussions beforehand.
“It was a predetermined thing,” Putter related. “... They’re looking to ruin an industry in a town that has none.”
“This is just plain, simply wrong,” assessed Kesten.
Neither Jenkins nor Deputy Mayor TC Hutchins returned a call for comment, but Trustee James Matthews told the Democrat why he voted with them.
“I thought we would open it up and see what happens,” he explained. “The place needs to grow. We need jobs.”
At least in the short-term, that may very well happen, as Kesten plans to add five more cabs, and Putter said he’s already applied to the village to add 13 more.
Monticello officials will continue to have authority over the licensing and inspection of cabs, and the board remains in control of any fare hikes.

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