ONLY ON 3: Investigation reveals Chattanooga taxi company breaking state registration law
Driving a car in Hamilton County will cost you a few extra dollars a year for the annual emissions test. Running a taxi company with dozens of vehicles can cost a business hundreds, unless the business finds a loophole the average person cannot.
Not only could the business save hundreds in testing fees, it could also save thousands by skipping repairs that an emissions test would expose. Acting on a tip, Channel 3 took a closer look at the state laws on emissions testing and why one company's owner believes he found a way around the testing.
Chattanooga-based Millennium Taxi has 60 vehicles in its fleet. Each one can travel up to 60,000 miles a year.
"Most of the vans just can't pass emissions," one former Millennium employee tells Channel 3.
The man says he stopped working for the company when he found out the owner wasn't "playing by the rules." Another former driver told us the same.
"He should be held accountable for dodging the emissions. And if his van can't pass emissions, it doesn't need to be on the road in Hamilton County anyways."
Channel 3 obtained more than a dozen copies of Millennium registrations from last year. Each shows a Millennium Taxi, with a Chattanooga business address, registered in Sequatchie County. The Hamilton County clerk's office also confirms Millennium has 2014 tags registered in Sequatchie too.
"The sad thing is, I've approached the Transportation Board at a public meeting and basically was told there's nothing that can be done," says the former employee.
Chattanooga's Taxi Board relies on a taxi inspector, employed by the Chattanooga Police Department, to catch violations. The department says it is "well-aware" Millennium is registering vehicles out of county. A spokesperson tells Channel 3, "Short of following the drivers home, there is no way to know if they have been deceptive during the registration process…We just check that the registration is current, as required by city code."
We asked Millennium's owner, Tim Duckett, if he is taking advantage of a loophole. His answer: "Not really. I think the state makes provisions for all businesses."
Duckett admits to registering some of his taxis out of county.
"I choose to do the registrations the way that I do because that's best fit for the business needs for my company. It has nothing to do about side-stepping or anything like that. It's just the way I run my business," says Duckett.
State law says commercial registrations may "be renewed through the office of the clerk of the county of the owner's principal place of business" or in "any other county in which the owner or corporate owner maintains an office or place of business."
We asked Duckett, "Why would you take the time to drive up to Dunlap to register your vehicles in Sequatchie, versus Hamilton County?" He answers, "Because that's where I have a business presence. So, if I have a business presence there, that's where I choose to register in relations to state law."
Duckett would not tell us how often he sends his taxis to Sequatchie for service or just how many have Sequatchie tags.
"I don't want to give my competitors an up on what I'm doing. They have to look and research for themselves," says Duckett.
Channel 3 asked the State Department of Revenue about his out-of-county tags and then went to the Sequatchie County clerk's office. Clerk Charlotte Cagle declined to talk on camera but admitted to registering Duckett's taxis. Cagle told us the state told her to stop the registrations. She calls it "one big misunderstanding."
"Whomever she spoke to, in my opinion, is not correct. Given what I have in front of me and what I've given you a copy of."
A spokesperson with the Department of Revenue maintains: "It is the department's position that occasionally sending a taxi into a neighboring county does not establish a place of business."
"If it has changed, then we'll change," says Duckett.
The Department of Revenue says it is up to its Special Investigation Section to recommend any criminal action. A violator could have to pay a $50 fine for each violation or even serve jail time.
After Channel 3's investigation, Duckett is no longer allowed to register his vehicles in Sequatchie County.