Tulare County Supervisors got an earful during their meeting on May 21. More than a dozen food vendors and community event planners expressed their frustration with the Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA), complaining about a new fee schedule put into effect January 1st.
HHSA enacted a new schedule of fees for food vendors and beefed up their health inspections. Though some fees went down, a few key ones have driven some food vendors away from participating in community events, threatening the existence of traditional pancake breakfasts. Supervisor Allen Ishida expressed concern about the inspectors’ demeanor, suggesting they could have conducted themselves more professionally.
At issue is a change from vendors paying one annual fee to paying a fee for every event. Adam Davis, owner of the Doughnut Factory, usually attends five or six events a month. The new fee structure has raised his costs from $326 a year to $3,600 a year. “That’s quite a jump and I decided not to go to some events,” he said.
“Now we struggle to get vendors when they have to pay just to participate,” said John Harmon, who helps organize the Tulare Downtown Association’s Tuesday Street Fair. “They will take into consideration how many people are going to show up. But for any new event like ours, vendors aren’t going to think it’s worth it.”
“The new fees scare vendors away from participating so vendors don’t show up, then the community doesn’t show up, and the event fails,” said Manuel Ortiz of the Tulare Chamber of Commerce.
“If I’m on the borderline about going to an event, I won’t go if I have to pay,” said Davis.
Sandy Blankenship, executive director of the Exeter Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber is having trouble finding vendors for its annual Fourth of July festival at Exeter City Park. “Some of these events will go away and the community will suffer,” she added.
Virginia Gurrola, mayor of Porterville, pointed out that many of these vendors are entrepreneurs who get their start in business at these events. After their initial success, they establish a brick-and-mortar business and contribute to the local tax base. She said the new fees could be job-killers.
According to Alan Landon of All Fired Up, a pizza vendor, the change came when HHSA started reviewing the California Health and Safety Code to make sure Tulare County was in compliance. HHSA asked county supervisors for advice was directed to look into “location-based fees,” but it was explained to Landon that the California Health Code gave counties local control over such fees.
County Administrative Officer Jean Rousseau expressed concern for what small community events and vendors were experiencing. “I apologize for all the confusion,” he said. “The last thing the county wants to do is create a burden for non-profits or small businesses.”
“I do not want Tulare County fees to prevent individuals or vendors from participating in community functions nor force them to raise their prices to a level that is cost prohibitive for Tulare County residents,” said Supervisor Pete Vander Poel.
Timothy Lutz, HHSA Fiscal Operations manager, had been listening to the vendors’ concerns for the last two weeks. He came prepared. Expressing his appreciation for the public’s feedback, he proposed that the county suspend the new fee structure and return to the old rules in effect before January 1st.
A motion to suspend the new fees was passed unanimously. The board of supervisors also decided to take the time needed, even if it required several months, to write a fee schedule that would keep food vendors in business while safeguarding the public. Moreover, HHSA was asked to review how other counties set up their fee structures.
“I don’t ever want Tulare County to be at the top of any fee schedule for anything,” said Vander Poel.
“Tulare County HHSA looks forward to a fair and equitable process along with a collaborative dialogue with community stakeholders as we examine fee structure options,” wrote Lutz the following day. “HHSA’s Environmental Health is also dedicated to providing business owners and vendors with the highest quality of service and customer care. This issue will go back to the board of supervisors on August 27th, allowing HHSA an extended amount of time to research various practices and convene stakeholder meetings with impacted food vendors.”
Landon said of the supervisors’ vote, “We feel good about it.” He will still be able to sell his popular wood-fired pizzas all over the county for a one-time fee. Feeling a new confidence, he continued, “We need to band together and make a vendor’s association. We need to educate ourselves and assign ourselves an advocate.”