Company objects to more fees

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BRATTLEBORO — A plan to make all those providing rides for fares pay for municipal permits and registration, previously reserved for taxicabs only, had met little resistance until Tuesday.

The issue "boils down to money" — more fees and requirements for drivers or companies, said Terry Hendricks, whose family owns VTS Ride Safe and Courteous Transportation in Vernon.

"We don't want to let these people down but if we have to jack the rates up on them so much that it doesn't make sense to do, then I would just rather not service them," Hendricks told the Select Board, referring to her customers in the Brattleboro community. "I think that would be sad for your community and it would be somewhat sad for us."

The town charges taxi operators $25 a year for a permit and $100 per year for vehicle registration, with $50 for every additional vehicle, and it is in the process of changing its taxicab ordinance to include all "vehicles for hire" due to the rise of online ride-hailing services Uber and Lyft. Select Board members want to "level the playing field" and ensure safety, so they are in the process of including limousines, shuttle buses and the ride-hailing services in the ordinance to encompass all "vehicles for hire" that may fall outside of regulated transportation such as buses and trains. As a transportation service, VTS would need to comply with the town's proposed ordinance.

Town Manager Peter Elwell said the first reading of the amended ordinance had been held during a meeting two weeks ago and adoption could occur after the second hearing, which started at Tuesday's meeting but board members wanted to extend the process to the next meeting on Sept. 18 after Hendricks raised her concerns. She said her company is registered to do business as a transportation service because drivers also pick up groceries or prescriptions for people and it needs to carry commercial carrier insurance she called "very expensive."

"We assist a great many people who live in Brattleboro and have for the last three years," she said. "We have people from Springfield, we have people from Keene, many people helping the local residents to get around."

Hendrick said her crew picks people up from Brattleboro Memorial Hospital and the Brattleboro Retreat, and drives employees from businesses in town to and from work. Enforcing the ordinance, she said, "would seem to be a huge undertaking if it were to be across the board."

A new state law requires ride-hailing companies to carry insurance for its drivers and perform background checks. And the Vermont Legislature is expecting to see a study soon comparing municipal taxi regulations.

The amended town ordinance would apply "to operators who pick up people for rides in Brattleboro, so a car driving through Brattleboro is not subject to the ordinance and a car that picks up someone someplace else and drops the person off in Brattleboro is not subject to this ordinance," Elwell said, adding that is how it always worked for taxicab operators. "Frankly, people who have been operating as taxicab companies and picking up customers in Brattleboro should have been complying with the town's taxicab ordinance."

Hendricks said her business was already registered with the state.

"It just shouldn't be a double whack," she said.

Vernon does not have a policy requiring taxicab operators to register with the town, according to Vernon officials.

Board members noted the challenge in getting fees from operators when they are based out of other communities where similar ordinances may be in place.

"To me, just because everybody might not do it doesn't mean we shouldn't do it," said Kate O'Connor, board chairwoman.

Elwell said a larger number of rides are needed in a place like Brattleboro, considered an economic hub, than in more rural communities.

"I think the discussion this evening raises points that warrant additional information to be provided to the board so you can make a really informed decision," he said.

At the meeting, the board had its second and final hearing to establish a loading and unloading zone at the Boys & Girls Club of Brattleboro on Flat Street.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.

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