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Nassau's Taxi and Limousine Commission advisory board rife with industry ties

Taxis wait at the Hicksville LIRR station on

Taxis wait at the Hicksville LIRR station on Thursday, June 11, 2015 in Hicksville. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

A majority of the policymaking board for Nassau's new Taxi and Limousine Commission has close ties to the traditional taxi industry now trying to beat back competition from new and increasingly popular app-based ride services.

While two of nine spots remain unfilled on the board that will advise the county on ride-services firms such as Uber, four members of the unpaid advisory board own taxi or livery companies in the county. Another has led a large bank's national taxi medallion financing program.

Missing, so far, are representatives of the emerging firms, such as Uber, that allow people to book independently owned cars using their smartphones.

The commission, a stand-alone county department, ultimately is to have about 10 inspectors. Their mission will be to crack down on unlicensed for-hire vehicles -- including illegally operating cabs and those using new technologies -- and to ensure that the 2,300 cars now registered by the county meet insurance and driver training requirements. Previously, a handful of consumer affairs department employees handled the task.

With the commission poised to begin operation in the coming months, County Executive Edward Mangano and legislative leaders have been filling the Taxi and Limousine Board that will shape its regulations.

Mangano, a Republican, has appointed four members who own taxi or limousine companies -- one recommended by the Long Island Taxi Transportation Operators Association -- as well as the co-owner of a Westbury electrical cable and wire distributor.

Legislative Democrats appointed a banker who managed Capital One's $1.5 billion taxi medallion finance program, along with a resident who rides taxis. The legislature's GOP majority will fill the board's final two spots.

Seeking diversity on board

Legis. Carrié Solages (D-Elmont), one of two lawmakers who voted against creation of the commission in December, expressed concern about the current makeup of the new policymaking board.

"We can't allow the people based in the traditional taxi industry to be the only ones watching. Then it becomes a case of the fox watching the henhouse," Solages said. "We don't want a body who says 'no' to the competition looking at new ways to meet the residents' transportation needs."

Matt Wing, a spokesman for Uber, the largest of the app-based firms, said he didn't want to "prejudge" the taxi board before it meets. But he said Uber hopes it "will engage with all members of the industry from the start to determine what policies best serve the interests of their community and expand consumer choice."

A spokeswoman for Lyft, an app-based service that also has challenged many taxi companies, urged Nassau to "be open to innovative new industries."

"Cities and counties that have embraced new technologies have seen huge improvements in transportation options," said spokeswoman Chelsea Wilson. "Unfortunately, in many places we've seen entrenched interests use government to keep out competition that would benefit customers and the local economy."

But the new services, which typically treat drivers as contractors, haven't pressed for board positions, said Gregory May, who heads the taxi commission. "If they are interested in having a representative serve, it would be incumbent upon them to say so," he said.

Wing said Uber plans to meet with May this week. "Of course we would welcome sitting on the board," he said.

Taxi companies have long-standing ties to Mangano. His campaign ads were displayed atop hundreds of cabs when he ran for re-election in 2013. Mangano's four appointees to the taxi board and their companies have also given his campaign more than $18,000 since 2010, state elections records show.

May said board members' political giving won't influence him. He noted that his staff already has ticketed a cab from the company of a board member who has contributed to Mangano for not displaying its registration.

"My job is not to serve the business interests of a few board members but to regulate the taxi and limousine industry in Nassau County to ensure the safety of the riding public. Any suggestion to the contrary is wrong," May said in an email.

Mangano aides cited the rise of companies such as Uber and Lyft as the legislature debated the proposal to create the Taxi and Limousine Commission.

"Many unlicensed passenger vehicles, some aided by modern digital or computer technology, continue to operate as for-hire within Nassau and continue to pose a danger to county residents because these vehicles may be uninsured and/or unsafe," the county law states.

Uber said then that the law appeared designed mainly to "protect the incumbents."

Rules in place debated

But taxi owners on the advisory board say they only want to ensure that all for-hire vehicles abide by the same rules.

"It needs to be an even playing field," said Larry Blessinger, a member of the taxi board who runs six taxi and livery car companies in Nassau with a combined fleet of 400 vehicles.

For-hire vehicles with "point-to-point" service in Nassau must register with the county and obtain separate licenses from all towns, villages and cities where they operate. Uber cars, for example, are fully licensed in New York City but not in Nassau. So they can pick up someone at JFK Airport and take them to Nassau -- or vice versa -- but can't travel from Long Beach to Hempstead.

Blessinger, who personally and through his businesses has given more than $10,000 to Mangano's campaigns, said the number of unlicensed for-hire cars has grown as enforcement in Nassau has lagged.

"Right now the rules that are in place are very positive -- they just need to be enforced," said Blessinger, who has appeared with Mangano at news conferences to discourage drinking and driving and encourage taxi use. "That's why the county executive formed a taxi and limo commission."

Uber called current county regulations unrealistic, arguing that independent drivers would have more difficulty securing licenses from multiple jurisdictions than a single cab company with a large fleet. They say a single license permitting travel anywhere in the county would be preferable.

"We believe there is a true opportunity for the new commission to set a new standard," said Uber public policy director Michael Allegretti.

May, however, noted that the state "empowers" individual municipalities to regulate the taxi industry. He added that state law also authorizes the county to register vehicles and handle enforcement for safety.

"I think the local municipalities will always want that power," said Peter Blasucci, a Mangano appointee to the taxi board who runs Delux Transportation in Port Washington. "If we have to abide by these rules and regulations, everybody in the business should."

NASSAU TAXI ... LIMOUSINE BOARD

The board will propose regulations for for-hire vehicles to the county's new Taxi and Limousine Commission. Seven board appointments have been made, and the remaining two seats will be filled by the county legislature's Republican majority.

Chosen by County Executive Edward Mangano

* Matt Silver, president of Ultimate Class Limousine, Hicksville

* Larry Blessinger, vice president of six taxi and limo companies in Nassau

* Peter Blasucci, president of Delux Transportation Services, Port Washington

* Donald Reisfeld, owner of Champion Wire ... Cable, Westbury. Also a New Cassel Business Association leader

Chosen by Long Island Taxi Transportation Operators Association

* Steven Berry, operator of Dawson Taxi, Baldwin, and owner of S ... G Limousine, Merrick

Chosen by Nassau County legislative minority Democrats

* Paul Dellaquilo, a banker who managed Capital One's $1.5 billion National Taxi Medallion Finance Specialty program

* Candice Coleman, taxi user from Westbury

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