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Legislature cuts farmers market fees, costing city

Thursday, August 8, 2019 by Jo Clifton

Passage of a little-known bill, Senate Bill 932, which establishes a $100 maximum fee for food sales permits at farmers markets, will cost the Austin Public Health Department about $4,000 in the current fiscal year and an estimated $41,485 in Fiscal Year 2019-20, department director Stephanie Hayden told Council during Tuesday’s work session.

Hayden explained that the current fee schedule ranged from $177 for a permit to sell prepackaged foods and beverages to $622 for the sale of foods cooked and prepared on-site. Because the law takes effect Sept. 1, Council will consider an item to reduce the fees on today’s agenda.

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan asked Hayden how they would make up for the lost revenue and Hayden told him that the department would be collecting more fees on different kinds of inspections, so that overall the deficit for inspections would only be about $15,000 next year.

Flannigan referred the Austin Monitor to a June meeting of the Community Advancement Network, which is available on ATXN. At that meeting he remarked, “In order for farmers markets to exist, the city will have to subsidize them with property taxes.”

But Alex Canepa, who directs policy at the Sustainable Food Center, told the Monitor that the state health department charges $100 for permits at farmers markets outside the city. That’s why legislators picked that number, he said. He seemed surprised to hear that Austin Public Health would face a deficit as a result of the changes in the law.

Flannigan, who also chairs another committee at the Capital Area Council of Governments, noted that during one of that group’s meetings, a representative of the Sustainable Food Center “bragged about the bill that limits our ability to charge for the food permits … bragged about their preemption work.”

He added, “I made a point to them in that meeting and I will just repeat it here that I’m not sure how we can permit any farmers markets anywhere in the city ever again. How do we justify that?”

Brie Franco, Austin’s intergovernmental relations officer, who was explaining to the CAN board what took place during the 2019 legislative session, said that regardless of the service, “the cost the Legislature always seems to settle on is $100. They seem to think that the cost of providing a service is $100 … and that’s anywhere in Texas.”

Ronda Rutledge, executive director of the Sustainable Food Center, told her colleagues on the CAN board, “What we were petitioning for was a cap on the number of permits that small farmers and ranchers have to get. … They have razor-thin margins and they were being permitted at every single market that they go to basically to do the same thing.”

Flannigan responded, “There’s no excuse for someone in this community to go to the Legislature for preemption. There’s no excuse for that. Absolutely zero. ”

Rutledge replied that in asking for legislative help, she was going to bat for a small business. Flannigan said he too was going to bat for a small business – a constituent who sells jams and jellies. He said, “She came to my office and we were about to roll out a new set of fees … You don’t solve an argument with your elected municipal official by going to a state rep in Odessa. That is unacceptable … especially in this community, of all communities, to give up on working with the City Council and go running off to the Legislature.”

Canepa said Wednesday that his organization tried to work with the city of Austin, as well as other cities, including Houston and Dallas, to arrive at a solution that would be acceptable both to farmers and cities. He said Austin was charging considerably more than other cities for the same inspections, and the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, which his group worked with, decided legislation was necessary.

“This is not an anti-city bill, not a preemption bill,” Canepa said. “If the health department’s budget is so precarious … we would be the first organization testifying before the City Council” to give them more money.

The bill, authored by Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, applies not only to farmers markets but also to farm stands and sales at farms. The legislation states that the city or county granting the permit may only charge one fee, even if the seller has more than one location, which is apparently what Rutledge wanted. Canepa said Austin Rep. Eddie Rodriguez carried similar legislation in 2013 and was a strong supporter of this year’s bill.

Council’s agenda backup states that staff from Austin Public Health and the Law Department are reviewing SB 932 and House Bill 1694 by Rep. Stan Lambert, R-Abilene, which relates to providing samples of farmers’ products, “to determine necessary amendments to Chapter 10-3 of the city code that will be required in order to conform to these new state laws.”

Photo by Larry D. Moore [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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