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New temporary permit fees are actually temporary

Monday, March 2, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

This year, Austin briefly had higher temporary food permit fees. Those are gone after a City Council vote last week, but work is already underway to establish new fees, again.

As part of this year’s budget, Council moved forward with a new fee schedule for temporary food permits and approved eight new positions to keep up with the volume of inspections. The cost of those new positions was to be offset by the fee changes. At this point, reverting back to the original 2014 fee schedule would cost the city about $404,000 annually, according to Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo.

Though Council had approved the new fee schedule based on rising costs of service for the city, since then, Council members have heard from smaller nonprofit organizations, who say the increase in fees is too steep.

On Thursday, Council approved a return to the lower 2014 fees in a vote of 10-0-1, with Council Member Ora Houston abstaining. At the same time, it initiated the process for developing new fees that, hopefully, will spare the city’s smallest vendors without costing the city hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.

Given the potential impact that removing the fees may have on the budget, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo asked that Council send the item to the Impact Fee Advisory Committee. That group will take a look at things like phasing fees in and establishing different payment tiers in order to balance the needs of the city with its citizens.

Tovo compared it to the water rate adoption that occurred last year, when Council adopted, then quickly changed, a fee schedule for the Austin Water Utility to ensure that the fees were applied more judiciously.

Chief Sanitarian David Lopez explained that a cost-of-service analysis found that with both one- to two-day events and three- to four-day events, the city spent about $98 on inspections. Fees were changed to reflect that cost, and the city combined the two event categories into one.

But instituting a $98 fee for events that were between one and five days proved a bit regressive.

Tovo pointed out that the change hit the smallest events the hardest. The change was a 180 percent increase in cost for the shortest events, from $35 to $98.

Council Member Pio Renteria said that, in East Austin, there were many small fundraiser events, and he was concerned that the high fees could discourage organizers from holding events in the future.

“If you get a group of 20 people applying for permits for a two-day event, that is a lot of money that is coming out,” said Renteria. “These are nonprofit groups. They barely make any money on these events.”

Renteria asked whether there was a discount for certain events. He was told, essentially, no.

Lopez explained, saying, “Whether it’s a two-day event or a 14-day event, these vendors all pay the same amount of money. … It may be incumbent on them to know what the requirements will be in going forward with such events.”

Lopez said Council could discuss whether it wanted another category for certain events, and that will be part of the discussion moving forward.

Though Council approved the ordinance changing the fees back to their earlier state, Health and Human Service’s Chief Administrative Officer Kimberly Maddox explained that it would take at least 30 days to update the changes in the city’s AMANDA database. Suggestions for a brand new fee schedule will return to Council in two months.

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