The last few years have been all about Task Forces and Committees for Food Trucks in Lexington, and this evening it came back to Council chambers for new interpretations.
Sean Tibbetts, proprietor of Cluckin Burger and director of the Bluegrass Food Truck Association addressed the Council, requesting help from the elected officials with new enforcement and compliance issues.
"We had some trucks go to try to get zoning compliance permits -- those of you who've seen our 22-step flow chart know that that is step number one in getting permits to operate -- the zoning compliance office has started denying permits unless that particular property is zoned for food service, even on properties that we worked with all last year. The one specific to today that happened was Country Boy Brewing. We've had food trucks out there every night for the last year, and all of a sudden, today, we can't get a zoning compliance permit."
"Without zoning compliance I can't get my certificate of occupancy. Without my certificate of occupancy, I can't get my itinerant merchant [license]. Without my itinerant merchant, I can't get my health department license. So this one permit that is free and didn't exist prior to July of last year, is now preventing us from being able to operate... We called the zoning office this afternoon, and the secretary was not able to put me in touch with any planners, but she said that is the new interpretation of that rule, and that we will not be able to operate anywhere unless it's zoned for food service specifically."
"Considering the food trucks don't want to set up in front of restaurants and restaurants don't want us to set up in front of them, we feel like this is a problem in the zoning office, and we can't seem to get any resolution."
"That's our first concern and it puts us out of business in Fayette County."
The next issue was the green flyer that came in the mail from Division of Revenue on January 12, stating certificate of occupancy fees are all due by January 31, with late penalties assessed. With the deadline not addressed by ordinance for itinerant merchants, he said, "that creates a huge amount of expense on us that, again, was not applied last year."
The next concern he expressed was a specification from the same flyer stating that the $500 annual bond was due by January 31. "In the itinerant merchant ordinance, it states that if you have an occupational license tax return then you're excused from having to have that $500 bond. The occupational return is not due until April 15, and the bond is due January 31. It puts us in a position where not only do we have to pay the $500 bond by the 31st, but we also have to pay the two and a half percent tax, which I don't think is applied to other businesses in Fayette County."
He concluded with a summary of requests: streamlining of the permitting, updating of the rules, and modernizing of the process to include online (or even mail).
"streamlining of the permitting process. This whole zoning compliance and certificate of occupancy just doesn't make sense for our business. We're not making any permanent alterations to parking lots. We're not making any building alterations. We pull in, we set up, and we leave... Even our largest trucks take up a couple parking spaces, so if a business is [willing] to give up those parking spaces for a night to have a food truck come, it seems like it should be up to the business owner, not the Division of Zoning and Building Inspection."
"the Itinerant Merchant Rules updated to be more realistic. The current rules that are on the books were passed in 1982." He acknowledged Council Member Peggy Henson and Council Member Diane Lawless's participation on the Itinerant Merchant Task Force last year, adding, "we were very participatory during that process and we still have itinerant merchant rules on the books that are impossible for us to comply with," (like knowing every address they're going to set up for, for the year, in January). "With a temporary business that's temporary in nature and mobile in nature, we just can't comply with those rules."
"Zoning compliance is in one building, the building inspector for the c.o.o. is on a different floor in that building, Itinerant Merchants is over here in Revenue, and the Health Department is on Newtown Pike. We can do none of that online. We can't even do it by mail. Every single one of those steps has to be done in person. If we set up in two locations in the same day -- lunch somewhere Saturday, and somewhere else for dinner on a Saturday night -- we end up spending somewhere between four and a half and six hours getting permits, rather than doing work and generating profit and being a part of this occupational tax, and you guys getting our two and a half percent. Instead, we're standing in government offices trying to get permits which we are now being denied."
Where the BFTA is asking for assistance, he said, is in policy, since many of these issues are not spelled out by ordinance.
Council Member Bill Farmer began by asking how much of this ground had already been covered by last year's Itinerant Merchant Task Force. Tibbits replied, "these are the ones that are currently on the books that are being interpreted differently....Primarily, the proposed regulation focuses on where we're allowed to operate and hours of operation."
Asked by Council Member Farmer if the issues are largely related to interpretation, Tibbits used the analogy that whenever they get within ten yards of the goal posts, "the goal posts move 20 yards back."
Farmer requested that the BFTA present the Council with a Summary of the issues outlined during session.
Council Member Diane Lawless clarified that she'd already expressed questions throughout the Task Force process as to why Revenue and Building Inspection were governing the food trucks' daily whereabouts when that responsibility and oversight is already addressed by the Health Department.
Tibbetts suggested, "Jefferson County is in Kentucky; they're under the same state laws that we are and they recently updated their food truck regulations that they pay $100 a year and can operate throughout the county. So they're still paying revenue; they're still giving a license that's specific to food trucks; but it eliminates this whole process of having to update every single address and paying for every single address where we operate....Even if I start at Country Boy [Brewing,] I go to Beerworks, I go back to Country Boy, I have to pay the $15 again to go back to Country Boy, which is an address I already registered."
CM Peggy Henson, Task Force, reminded everyone this item is in Economic Development Committee and the concerns mentioned tonight are scheduled to be heard in February, adding "it does seem pretty crazy, and from the very beginning that I began working on this issue it has been crazy." What would happen, she asked, if the food trucks wanted to set up at a factory, "They're not zoned for food."
Tibbits said if there are waivers and exemptions that could be granted, BFTA members need to know how to apply.
Council Member Steve Kay asked Bill O'Mara as acting commissioner (of Finance and Administration), if there's a way to maintain the status quo until the larger questions can be addressed in committee, and by the Council.
O'Mara says there are no changes within Division of Revenue (he can't speak to zoning), but that the green mailer was intended to go out in December, but went out later this year in January, and that the deadline could be extended to compensate for that.
Mayor Jim Gray added, "I feel like we've got some pretty good problem solvers in the administration," who might be able to alleviate some of the frustration "for something that represents real creativity in our city, in my view, and it's your passion and persistence and determination that I suspect we all appreciate."
CM Steve Kay asked Commissioner Paulsen if there had been a change in policy. Commissioner Paulsen said he was unaware of a policy change and had requested clarification from Chris King, as well as Jeff Fugate (task force), reading his update, "the hours and location is in committee currently. Permitting is being discussed internally," adding, "There's a streamlining process they're working on the details of."
CM George Meyers asked "can the administration work on putting as much of this in an e-commerce process as possible? So they can do it online?"
Commissioner Paulsen responded, "Planning, Building Inspection, and Revenue are all trying to get together...We are meeting next Friday to start what we call the One Stop Shop, both physically and online. While it's a great idea... there are some technological things we have to do on the back end that we need to fix as well. It's definitely a priority for us... Not just for food trucks, but for other reasons as well."
As for the issues raised in public comment, Paulsen said he was in favor of keeping the process at status quo from when the Task Force started, and "keep things going in that same mode until the task force has ended and made their findings and changes take place."
CM Lawless requested, "When the task force has ended, and it's all settled, would you please put flowers on my grave, because I will no longer be amongst the living," by then.