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Inspection fee change for food vendors stalled

A fight over health department inspection fees between the Monroe County Legislature and prepared-food farmers market and festival vendors has been placed on the backburner.

A bigger issue, a farmers market advocate says, is that cost-prohibitive fees may keep more vendors from opening up stalls, which in turn would generate less sales tax and blunt the growing farmers-market trend.

Vendors are required to apply for 14-day blocks at $115, which with a 22-week season would total $1,265. The Legislature had proposed reducing the fee to $450 but vendors, supported by the Democratic minority, lobbied for drop to $150.

On a 17-10 vote, the legislature tabled the bill but a provision will allow lawmakers to bring it up again for a vote.

Michael Warren Thomas, host of the WYSL radio show “For the Love of Food” and co-founder of the Westside Farmers Market in Rochester’s 19th Ward, said even the proposed reduced fee was prohibitive and would keep vendors from setting up stalls.

Thomas wrote in an e-mail that “it was ironic that the Republicans want a 300 percent higher fee than the Democrats, especially when several Republican legislators have great insight into farming, food and healthy eating.”

He noted that Anthony Danielle is part owner of Mario’s Italian Steakhouse, Robert Colby is a long-time farmer and Dan Quatro is a doctor.

If the fees are lowered and more vendors set up stalls, “we’re going to get tens of thousands of dollars of sales taxes,” Thomas said in a phone interview. He lamented the legislative impasse on the fee structure, saying it was a roadblock to the booming growth of the farmers markets and local-food movement. “Basically, they punted on it.”

Thomas said earlier he’d been prepared to speak before the Legislature on several issues, such as the inspection fee inequity between year-round restaurants — a maximum of $370 annually — and stall operators, the fact that 21 New York counties charge $30 for the entire market season, and that street vendors pay less too.

“Does it require more inspections at a farmers market that has an on-site manager compared to a hot dog cart parked downtown?” he also wrote in his e-mail. “Yet, hot dog cart owners pay a fraction of the prepared-food vendor fees.”

Monroe County Legislature Majority Office Chief of Staff Lisa Polito Nicolay said the state’s sanitary code sets forth health guidelines on vendors, such as requirements for hand-washing stations and hot-and-cold food temperatures, and requires that temporary food service permits be blocked at 14 days.

In an e-mail, Nicolay wrote that the tabled new fee category would have covered 56 consecutive days and allowed for a maximum of four 14-day permits to be issued during that period. That’s subdivided into low-risk permits at $75 for 56 consecutive days and medium/high-risk permits at $150. The current fees for those two categories are $220 and $460 respectively.

Vendors in counties without health departments are subject to state health department inspection and pay $30 seasonal fees. However, counties with their own health departments can set their own structure, and that the Legislature was trying to work with the vendors and their advocates.

“The city has real cost with processing paperwork and inspections. The fees were high, but we did offer a two-thirds reduction. We can’t give everything away for free,” Nicolay said.

Sue Gardiner-Smith, manager of the Brighton and South Wedge farmers markets, said reducing the state could conceivably waive the current 14-day block requirement but the county was solely responsible for the fee structure.

The idea that market vendors should pay escalated fees does not make sense to her since they’re subject to the same health codes as restaurants. Vendors who don’t comply wouldn’t be welcome.

“We, as market managers, wouldn’t want that kind of vendor,” she said. “We don’t want to sell people bad food.”

Since vendors can go to Wayne or Ontario counties and pay $30, Gardiner-Smith said she and other managers desperately want to retain and keep adding vendors in Monroe County.

“It strengthens our markets,” she said, adding that farmers markets are great for improving community involvement. “We want to help local farmers, communities and businesses.”