January 25, 2022

Food truck ordinance passes, fees at a standstill

Council agrees proposed $100 permits are too expensive, wants a waivable inspection fee

The food truck ordinance requiring vendors to undergo fire inspections and other regulations was passed Jan. 3 by the Newton City Council, but accompanying license fees and premise permit fees were tabled for further staff review. Many of the council members agreed the proposed $100 starting fees were too high.

Joe Coen, a Newton resident and a supporter of food trucks, could understand why a fee may need to be established with the permits. Nonetheless, he pleaded to council to make it reasonable so vendors can afford to operate in town. He’s not against requiring inspections, but he also wants to keep food trucks here.

“Try to keep it reasonable so we can maybe not have to go to Des Moines all the time to eat pho or something…If they get charged from one community and another charges, all those charges start adding up. They’re burning gas and tires,” Coen said during the city council meeting.

Kim Didier, executive director of DMACC Business Resources, said she is trying to understand the purpose of the fees and what they would cover. From what she researched, cities like Johnston and Altoona — two areas “in the heart of the metro” — have no fees for food trucks.

Other cities like Urbandale and Waukee require a $30 and $50 fee, respectively. All four communities Didier mentioned to council have much larger populations than Newton. Didier argued vendors in the metro can effectively operate within in Altoona, Johnston, Urbandale and Waukee for $80. It’s also a shorter commute.

If invited to a community that has a premise permit, the food trucks would not be charged there either, Didier added.

According to city documents, several other cities charge more than staff’s proposed $100 fee. Bondurant and Clive also charge an annual rate of $100. Dallas Center charges $175 while Marshalltown has a $200 fee. Meanwhile, Ankeny and Norwalk charge $250.

The two largest annual fees the City of Newton included in the agenda documents were $300 and $500 from Indianola and Grimes, respectively. Still, Didier argued the food truck owners will be looking for areas where they can generate the most business with little to no cost to themselves.

“So if I’m a vendor, where am I going to go? What’s my market? Well, my market is to go to the larger ones and it costs me less. I would just ask you to take that into consideration,” Didier said, noting the city wants to have a welcoming environment for the mobile food units.

Hillary Foster, a resident of Newton, questioned where the associated fees are going towards as far as city labor. Since the fire chief will be handling the safety inspections, Foster asked if the funds would go towards that specific department. Foster also asked if a cost-analysis has been conducted by city staff.

“Someone is still going to be spending time looking at these applications,” she said. “Someone’s spending the time and it’s going to be the fire department.”

Julia Prendergast, vice-president of Destination Downtown Newton Alliance, told council the local trailer group wants to see as much foot traffic and vibrancy as it can get in the city. Without fees they have a better chance of doing that, she said, and as more restaurants set up shop in town, the ordinance could change.

“But in my opinion no fees would be amazing for our food trucks,” she said. “Let’s get some people here. Let’s continue to do what we’re doing. That’s really what I feel we should work on.”

CITY COUNCIL TABLES BOTH FEES

Council member Trotter made it clear he would vote “no” on the ordinance, saying he doesn’t believe the city should charge $100 to food trucks. Trotter was fine with the premise permit fee, but he disagreed with the annual license fee for trucks. Council member Mark Hallam agreed on the license fee.

However, Hallam argued the premise permit fee was also too steep. If the Newton Alumni Association was charged a permit during its alumni weekend festivities last year — which hosted a few food trucks downtown — he said the group and other nonprofits would not pay, or be able to pay, the $100 fee.

“If the alumni association had to shell out $100 for a permit fee for that, we wouldn’t have had food trucks,” Hallam said. “Too big of a risk. Might have shelled out $25. There’s no way. I can’t imagine other nonprofits would be willing to pay that fee just to get a food truck or two.”

Hallam would like to see no fees, but at the same time he understands the city is using staff time to process all this.

Council member Randy Ervin said a $100 premise permit fee may come easy for an entity like DMACC but would be more difficult for organizations like the local VFW. Ervin also pointed out some business owners like Marty Duffy of the returning Cellar Peanut Pub are relying food trucks.

“He basing some of his business decisions on coming back to Newton, counting on those food trucks to keep him in business,” Ervin said. “So I think we need to find a happy medium there. I think they have to pay something in respect to our brick-and-mortars in town. But I think $100 is too much.”

Although he was not ready to turn his suggestion into a motion, Ervin proposed both permits be set at $50 each. Hallam countered with a $25 premise permit fee and perhaps an inspection fee that could be waived if the food truck has already been inspected by another fire department.

Further discussion from council resulting in Trotter making a motion to table the resolution and direct staff to not only research the subject even further but also add a third fee — an inspection fee — which as Hallam suggested can be waived if proper documentation is shown to city staff.

PREMISE PERMIT & INSPECTION CLARIFICATIONS

Prior to the fee discussion, Didier asked for clarification regarding the premise permits. Legacy Plaza has already hosted a number of food trucks. With its large footprint in the community it could have multiple locations to host. Didier asked if DMACC would have to apply for multiple premise permits.

Since the city’s community development director was unable to attend the council meeting, development specialist Craig Armstrong answered Didier’s clarifying instead. Armstrong said DMACC would only need to apply for one premise permit, noting it would apply for all parts of a property.

Didier was also concerned about how the premise permit would work for the farmers market, which is usually held in a downtown street. Council members later said Newton Main Street, the organizer of the event, would likely pay for the permit. However, Didier noted Main Street does not own the street.

“So who applies for the premise permit? Because the application actually says that you are the ‘owner’ or the ‘leaseholder.’ And also I think at the last council (meeting) we talked about there would be no waiving (of permits) even if they were city events,” Didier said.

Newton Fire Chief Jarrod Wellik said his understanding of the ordinance is the organizing entity of any kind of event would be responsible for obtaining the permit. The goal of the premise permit, he added, is to make ensure there are designated areas to park food trucks safely.

Council member Vicki Wade provided another example to confirm Wellik’s claim. If Destination Downtown Newton Alliance wanted to host a food truck in the county-owned lot along the 200 block of West Second Street South, the group would be responsible for paying premise permit.

However, Didier told council members the draft application does not read that way and only identifies a property owner or leaseholder as the potential applicant. She recommended the application be amended if the intent is to have the organizer of the event pay for the premise permit.

Council member Evelyn George confirmed the application is watermarked as a draft and would need to be refined.

The amended food truck ordinance narrowly passed in a 4-2 vote. City council members Ervin and Hallam voted against it, the latter of which said he found the concept of a premise permit to be “elegant.” Such a permit would allow the fire department to check for safety and ADA issues, Hallam added.

“What I struggle with is that I’m still trying to understand the rationale of inspecting the food trucks themselves for safety, given they’re already inspected by the state for food safety. And they’re required to carry liability insurance. I think that’s a burden on food truck owners. That’s the part I cannot support.”

Other council members noted the ordinance’s inspection requirements also affects food trucks created and operating in Newton.

Trotter claimed food trucks outside of Newton are already inspected for fire suppression in their own cities. The ordinance allows those same vendors to present their fire inspection documentation to the City of Newton in lieu of an inspection from the city’s fire chief.

Following council’s action to pass the third consideration of the amended ordinance, it was unanimously approved for adoption.

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or cbraunschweig@newtondailynews.com

Christopher Braunschweig

Reporter with a strong penchant for community journalism.