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What Fire Inspection Fees Could Mean For Young Farmers Market Vendors


The Trinity Market launched on March 26. - FACEBOOK/THE TRINITY MARKET
  • Facebook/The Trinity Market
  • The Trinity Market launched on March 26.

San Antonio summers are synonymous with several activities: tubing, throwing cookouts and eating paletas. And as of several years ago, I'd confidently add weekend farmers markets to that list. 

But this May, market vendors who prepare food on-site (think Ming's Thing, Crepelandia, etc.) were asked to start paying a fire inspection fee — a tariff that's been on the books for 30 years but only recently enforced. The fee, $36.05 in advance or $45 on the day of the event, doesn't sound like much, but it applies per location and per day.

In other words, the fee adds up. A vendor working just one market, one day per week would run up an annual tab of more than $1,800 for the fire inspection fee if paid in advance, and well over $2,000 if paid the day of the market. 

This didn't sit well with vendors, often small businesses that are using the market as incubators. Farmers market vendors also pay market fees, which vary by location, and a $30.90 fee for temporary food service establishments/special events permit through the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District for every market day. 

That means that a vendor would pay a minimum of $66.95 each day, not including additional fees imposed by each market. 

"You basically lose money until you break even," Stephen Paprocki, a board member for the Food Policy Council of San Antonio and owner of Texas Black Gold Garlic, said. 

Fire Chief Charles Hood explained to the San Antonio Express-News that the fees cover the cost of inspecting mobile kitchens multiple times, since hot food vendors set up and tear down cooking equipment on a regular basis. Neither Metro Health nor SAFD have responded to requests for comment.

Though this ordinance affects all hot-food vendors, Paprocki's sentiments especially resonate with young farmers markets like Dignowity Hill Farmers Market, 78209 Farmers Market and The Trinity Market, which has 10 hot food vendors.

For Hayley Sayrs, a recent Trinity University graduate with a degree in biology and environmental science and market manager for the weeks-old Trinity Market, having hot food vendors is key to a market's growth.

"Hot food keeps people around. They're critical to have because people come to shop for produce, but stay for lunch," Sayrs said. 

The good news is the San Antonio Fire Department is trying to work with the vendors and markets, and the department already met with the Food Policy Council and a few market organizers the first week of June. The meeting put a halt on the fee as the groups work toward a compromise.

"It was encouraging to have the SAFD meet with vendors and event managers, as we understand their financial concerns. I remain optimistic that a solution will be reached that will ensure safe operations and support local business needs," Hood said via press release. 

A new proposed $300 annual fee is on the table, and additional meetings will be held in the future to hammer said fee proposal. 

But that might still not be enough for some market organizers. For People's Nite Market Valeria Hernandez and Jovanna Lopez see this as a step back for San Antonio. Their market was one of the first events to lose a number of vendors due to the increased fee.

"Of course we want to be in compliance. Of course we want safety, but why at such a high monetary cost to vendors?" Hernandez said. "It sets us back." 

The safety concern SAFD is citing is market vendors often move and change the physical set up of their booths on a weekly basis at time. 

Citing the health permit as Fiesta-centric, Lopez stressed the City should get "in with the times" and look at what other cities around the country with similar population sizes are doing to grow and keep large farmers markets. 

"We want these businesses to have the same opportunity others have had in the past," Paprocki said while adding that the temporary reprieve of the fee will help alleviate stress on vendors. 

Even if vendors are able to cover the costs of an annual fee, in addition to fees already paid, the additional cost will likely factor into market prices. 

SAFD will hold another meeting with market organizers on Thursday, June 9 at 4 p.m. to continue negotiations.

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