Photo by Jolene Almendarez

Editor’s Note: The following is a slightly expanded version of public comments submitted to the Board of Public Works by attorney Nathan M. Lyman following the Jan. 26 meeting of the sub-committee on Mobile Vending.

As always, we are eager to reprint alternative or dissenting viewpoints. Please send them to msmith@ithacavoice.com.

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I attended the sub-committee meeting on Mobile Vendors today.  Many restaurant owners and business leaders were invited to attend by the City through the DIA, but there was no recognition of their presence or ability for them to have input.  I am here to speak for some of them unable to attend tonight, because they have a business to run.

The presentation by the City had a number of material omissions.

1 – It omitted the concerns of bricks and mortar restaurants, widely reported in the press these past months.  I appreciate Councilwoman Brock bringing this up.  These complaints relate to the City’s failure to follow its own criteria for distance of locations from bricks and mortar restaurants and school properties, failure to enforce its law, and for acting in a discriminatory fashion improperly subsidizing food truck operations.

The Mobile Vending Law provides for a distance of 200 feet between restaurants and food trucks.  At the corner of Eddy and Dryden there are 3-4 restaurants within 200 feet, and one is less than 50 feet from its steps to the parking lot line.  Cornell property is adjacent to the site, not the minimum 100  feet from school property called for in the law.

2 – The presentation did not recognize the conflict between this ordinance and the Collegetown Zoning requirements for “active use” on the first floor, as noted by Councilman Kerslick.   Collegetown zoning limits who can rent first floor space.  There are only so many salons and restaurants Collegetown can absorb, and other permitted “active uses” like a library, bowling alley or theatre are not realistic prospects.

Retail stores are challenged trying to compete with online stores; apparently even Wal-Mart is having trouble with that, so pity the small vendor. With new construction nearing completion in Collegetown, the problem will only be made more challenging with additional inventory.  

The economic laws of supply and demand trump the City’s wishes for “active use” as defined in the zoning ordinance.  All you have to do is look at the closing of Ruloff’s, Stellas, and Dunbars to see this is true.  Does a vacant storefront really have more “active use” than a storefront filled with a professional’s office?  Why is the City limiting the property owner’s toolkit to adapt to a changing market with a vision based on Collegetown in the 1980’s?  Why are they talking about doing the same thing down in the Commons?

More importantly, when the City places improperly subsidized competition next to existing restaurants, it increases the likelihood of more restaurant closings, thereby decreasing the “active use” envisioned in a thriving Collegetown.  One closed restaurant will cost the City more than all the limited income food trucks generate together.

3 – On 11/10/15, I filed a request for re-evaluation and elimination of the Dryden/Eddy location under VII (E)(4) of the ordinance.  This section provides “each vending location will be evaluated annually….”  There has been no action by this committee, and it was left out of the subcommittee presentation.  I find no record in BPW minutes of any past annual evaluations required by the law.

Based on the information provided today by the City, this program generates $312.50 per month total revenue to the city.  One restaurant’s monthly water bill is  more than that.  One restaurant’s property tax for a year is more than all the revenue generated to the city in two years by food trucks.   

If you paid the subcommittee a living wage, ½ the income for this month was used up at today’s meeting.  If you include city employee wages, you go negative in about 15 minutes.

The real cost to taxpayers

Most apparent to the business community, but left out from the presentation and discussion, is the City’s failure to evaluate the real cost to taxpayers of this program.

  1. The Program requires the regular commitment of staff time to collecting an reviewing applications, certifying content, issuing permits and collecting the  money.  How many hours a month is that?
  2. It requires the design, creation and installation of new signage by city employees.  How much did that cost?
  3. The Fire Department is now creating new regulations and will have inspections; tere is a cost to that.  Building owners have to pay for fire inspections, will the food trucks?
  4. The City Chamberlain has to use staff and computer time to process payments; there is a cost to that.
  5. Mr. Nagy [Director of Parking Operations] is suggesting adding a 2nd and 3rd shift to create enforcement that is presently non-existent under the law, which no doubt will be more than $312.50 per month.  How much time has the police department spent on calls?
  6. What is the annual budget, in all categories (not just the BPW), for the expense associated with this law?

At its November, 2015 meeting (minutes, pgs 4 – 5), the BPW changed the Mobile Vendor fee structure, now charging only the equivalent of parking in the space, which is $1.50 per hour. The ordinance, however, defines “parking area vending locations” as a parking space + 8 feet, so that number is in fact less than the $1.50 per hour charged a parked car. [section VII (E)(3)]

Property owner’s have to pay a sidewalk maintenance fee to the City, but the food trucks get to use the sidewalk for free.  Restaurants that utilize outdoor tables on city sidewalks are charged a per square foot permit fee by the City.  Food truck patrons stand on the sidewalk to access the food truck, but the City discriminates in favor of the food truck because there is no corresponding per square foot fee to food trucks for sidewalk usage.

There was talk at the subcommittee meeting of using a 2010 city appraisal and CPI to evaluate current market value of food truck locations.  Since 2010, the CPI went up an average of 1.68% per year.   Last year it went up .7%.  In that same 5 year time period, taxes went up 32% at the corner of Eddy and Dryden, and city water/sewer rates went up 51%.  If the lease is tied to CPI (a common situation), the landlord’s income is flat or going down.  

Using this appraisal and applying CPI, the City will once again discriminate against bricks and mortar, because the computations will fail to take into account the real thing driving up costs to restaurants and other commercial storefronts – not the landlord as some have said, but the cost of government including stormwater fees, sidewalk fees, higher taxes and mandated higher minimum wages. Charging only $6-12/ day for a prime real estate corner, the city is subsidizing with taxpayer money the food trucks as they unfairly compete against bricks and mortar taxpayers. This is discriminatory, wrong, and morally incomprehensible.  

Nathan M. Lyman

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Featured photo by Jolene Almendarez

Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.