Robbie Short

Amid an ongoing dispute over permit fees for vendors in New Haven, city officials and food truck owners met in City Hall Thursday night to hear the details of the city’s new plan to reform sidewalk business in the city.

Attended by roughly 40 vendors, the meeting featured a lengthy presentation from Steve Fontana, New Haven’s deputy director of economic development. The city’s plans for a hike in permit fees would cap the highest fees food trucks must pay to operate at $4,250 annually, with most fees falling around $2,000 —a far cry from the few hundred dollars most food trucks currently pay annually. Fontana said the new plans would update current zoning ordinances and provide the funding for the city to enforce current ordinances and regulations more forcefully. At the moment, the city does not have enough funding to enforce these policies.

But the new regulations fell on an audience with thoroughly mixed opinions on their efficacy.

“What concerns me is that I don’t see the correlations between the problems identified here and the 1,000 percent increase in the price to do business in this city,” said Bob Sweeney Jr., who has owned a hot dog truck in the city for decades. “It went from $450 to a proposed $4,250 ——that’s a 1,000 percent increase.”

Fontana said the city often receives complaints about vendors’ behavior from residents and other vendors alike. Those complaints, he said, typically allege that vendors are violating city policies regarding noise, food waste and pollution, among other violations.

Though Fontana acknowledged that such offenders are in the minority of food vendors, he said it is still important to strengthen the enforcement of rules.

“Most of the complaints we get about vendors are from other vendors,” he said. “Clearly, most of you … are the ones that are following the rules, but you’re noticing that, due to a lack of enforcement resources by the city, there are some vendors who aren’t following the rules.”

Fontana added that the new fees are meant to increase the city’s capacity to enforce existing regulations.

City building official Jim Turcio, whose department has evicted several different food trucks from illegal spaces in recent months, also attended the meeting and was on hand to answer questions.

“We don’t want rogue people doing this any more than you want rogue people doing this,” Turcio said. “This is our way of saying, ‘How can we, with the limited resources we have as a city, put someone on the job making sure people aren’t doing that sort of stuff?’”

According to the proposal, the only food trucks that would be required to pay the $4,250 maximum fee are those on Long Wharf. The majority of permit fees in the four areas that would be designated as “special vending zones” — Long Wharf, Cedar Street, Ingalls Rink and Downtown — would fall around $2,000. Fontana said the city will work to “cluster” food trucks in specific Downtown areas.

At Long Wharf, food trucks would be required to pay $17 a day for a permit, the highest rate in the city. Food trucks — which park on the street, unlike food carts that set up on the sidewalk — would pay $8 a day in Downtown. Food carts, meanwhile, would pay $8 per day at Long Wharf and $4 per day at Ingalls Rink, Cedar Street and Downtown.

The meeting was the second conclave between the city and vendors this week; a previous meeting on Monday addressed many of the same issues, though attendance was limited by a snowstorm.

City government first floated the idea of an increase in vending permit fees in January at a closed meeting between Fontana and restaurant owners in The Study at Yale. The fee increase discussed at that meeting would have caused fees to skyrocket to $5,100 from the current fees of only a few hundred dollars. Following vocal opposition from vendors, Fontana’s new proposals represent a compromise between the two parties.

The permits will be available through one of two means. Current vendors will be allowed to submit sealed bids above the base rate for a permit in two-thirds of the spots in the designated area. The other third of the permits will be made available through a random lottery process. Fontana said the dual system is meant to protect current vendors while also allowing new vendors to enter the business.

“How can we try to make sure that people who have been vending in the city and have a valuable customer base can keep doing it?” he asked rhetorically. “How can we make sure that people who want to get into the business can do so?”

Attendees at the meeting, which lasted for over two hours, had mixed views on the new plans. Many said they were glad the city has become more transparent in the redesign of the vending ordinances, and praised Fontana for aiming to enforce existing regulations. Others, however, said the new fees are far too high.

“What [Fontana] is trying to accomplish here, addressing these complaints and these problems, is a proper government function,” Sweeney said. “What I don’t like to hear and see is government telling us where we can go, where we can’t go. I know you have reasons and you have to abide by here.”

Mary Ciccono, who works on the 744 Express food truck Downtown, questioned why the city had chosen to divide food trucks and food carts into separate fee categories. She said carts and trucks often face similar costs and profit margins, and that it seems unfair to charge them different rates.

Wub Tessema — owner of Lalibela, which has both a brick-and-mortar restaurant and a fleet of food carts — said he was happy that vendors were being included in the city’s deliberations on the fee revisions. He said the process is becoming “clearer and clearer” and suggested that vendors meet on their own, without the presence of city officials, to make their own positions clear on the fee hikes.

Fontana noted that the regulation restructuring process is by no means over. The city still plans to meet with Yale regarding the food carts at Ingalls Rink — which are technically illegal under current zoning law — after which the city will present the ordinance to Mayor Toni Harp. If the Mayor approves, he said, the ordinance will be presented to the Board of Alders, which will offer substantial opportunities for public comment before it becomes law.