By Jonathan Phelps
---- — DANVERS — Neil Papamechail of Peabody regularly uses taxicabs to get around the North Shore. But yesterday, he found himself stranded at Costco on Route 1 in Danvers, unable to get a ride.
After taking a cab to the store, Papamechail was unable to get a lift home after town officials cracked down on unlicensed taxi operations earlier this week.
“I ended up calling all four taxi companies, and they said they couldn’t help me,” said Papamechail, who is legally blind and has autism. “I ended up going on an unexpected six-mile walk.”
Danvers police conducted a sting Tuesday night and issued fines to several taxi companies that do not hold licenses to operate in town. It turns out that there are no such licensed operators, according to the town clerk’s office.
A patrolman and sergeant called the different taxi companies from the Liberty Tree Mall asking to be picked up. When the taxis arrived, police slapped each of the drivers with a $100 fine for not having a license, according to Sean McKinnon, general manager of North Shore Taxi in Peabody.
“We were told if they see us in Danvers, we would be pulled over and be fined again,” McKinnon said.
Taxis need a license only to pick someone up in town. They can legally pick up people in other communities and drop them off in Danvers without having a Danvers license, according to town bylaws.
McKinnon said his company has pulled the paperwork for a license, but it could take up to a month for him to obtain it. In the meantime, he said many of his customers are stranded, especially the elderly and those living in temporary housing at area motels.
He is hoping for a grace period from town officials until the licensure can be worked out.
Such licenses will cost the companies $100 for the first vehicle and $50 for each additional vehicle. Each driver must also have a permit, which costs $50. The town also requires background checks of drivers and vehicle inspections.
Papamechail, 42, said he grew up in Danvers and has been riding in cabs his whole life.
“For some people, a cab is a luxury that they use when they need it,” he said. “But for people like myself who are disabled or elderly, it is the only means of transportation we have.”
While there are other options available for the disabled, Papamechail said, they do not apply when he has his 10-year-old daughter with him.
Danvers police Chief Neil Ouellette confirmed the “compliance check,” saying a number of area taxi companies advertise that they do business in town without having a license. He said three or four companies were fined earlier this week, but he declined to identify them.
“They are doing business in Danvers, but they don’t have a license. That is a problem,” he said. “It is no different than an eatery operating without a common victualler license.”
Ouellette said the enforcement came out of several conversations with selectmen who were concerned about cabs operating in town without licenses.
McKinnon said that when North Shore Taxi opened three years ago, they were called to the Danvers police station to pick someone up.
“We said we didn’t have a license in town to operate,” he said. “At the time, they told us there are no licensed taxi companies in the town, and it didn’t matter to them if we came and picked people up in Danvers.”
Over the years, police relied on them to pick up stranded passengers after a car crash, McKinnon said.
“Nobody has ever asked us to be licensed in Danvers,” he said. “We were told we didn’t need it.”
But Ouellette said a similar check was done a couple of years ago and the companies were warned to get a license. Still, nobody registered, the chief said.
“How many times do you say, ‘If you do it again, you will be fined,’” Ouellette said. “We did that, and it wasn’t effective. At some point, we need to enforce (the bylaw).”
Ouellette said he has received a few phone calls from people upset about the enforcement but pointed the blame to the cab companies.
“We don’t call people and tell them they need a license to drive,” he said. “(The taxi companies) have licenses in Peabody, Salem and Beverly. Let’s face it, they know what they need to do.”
Selectman Bill Clark said the town revamped its taxicab bylaw in 2009 to keep better track of companies operating in town. He said the town is going to have to deal with any fallout from the enforcement.
“It just goes to show they are operating illegally,” Clark said. “As a result, they might choose not to do business in town.”
Ouellette said the town will likely work to expedite the licensing process for those looking to apply. In the meantime, he said there are other options for transportation, including buses and livery services.
The town clerk’s office said there hasn’t been a licensed taxi company in town for eight to 10 years.
Along with the Police Department, the town manager and clerk’s office also fielded complaints yesterday.
Assistant Town Manager Diane Norris said the main concern is safety of the residents who use the services. The town does background checks on drivers and inspections to make sure each company has safe vehicles and insurance.
“There is an expectation that the taxis that operate in town have a license,” she said. “We are certainly sympathetic to anyone that feels stranded, but on the other hand, you want to know you are in a safe, registered taxi.”
Norris said police were just doing their job.
“The burden is on the company knowing what license they need in the community,” she said.