Food truck debate in Auburn beckons question of fairness

Different taxation is a sticking point
By: Jon Schultz, Journal Staff Writer
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Editor’s note: This is the first story of a three-part series that will appear in the Journal in the days leading up to the Sept. 24 Auburn City Council meeting, where a new set of food truck regulations is slated to be up for adoption. Part 1 analyzes the issue of fair competition. A new ordinance recommended by the Auburn Planning Commission to regulate food trucks begs the question: What is fair business? When Commission Chairman Matt Spokely cast his vote to ban mobile eateries from Old Town and Downtown Auburn, he emphasized the importance of maintaining a “fair playing field.” “For me, it was about fairness and whether or not the fact that somebody can pull in open up shop in their mobile vending truck and attract business away from some of the other brick and mortar businesses in town,” Spokely said Friday. The package of new food-truck rules are scheduled to be up for adoption by the City Council on Sept. 24. Spokely said he’s not entirely opposed to food trucks, he’s just seeking to create a “sense of equity” between the two forms of business that currently play by two different sets of rules. Spokely said his two main concerns are how they aren’t taxed the same. He said the commission is looking into exactly how much sales tax goes back to Auburn when an outside food truck sets up on the city’s streets, but early reports indicate it is a small amount. Spokely said currently food trucks also fall outside the umbrella of the business improvement district, which taxes members based on their gross sales to fund, among other things, maintenance of public restrooms that may be used by patrons of mobile vendors. “Maybe there’s a way that these mobile vending businesses, if they want to come into town and sell food, they can participate in that program,” he said. What’s more, Commissioner Alan Young, the other member voting in favor of the ordinance, raised the issue of property tax. Spokely said the commission is not trying to single out any one business – Maria Mexican Tacos, a brick-and-mortar eatery in Bowman, has been in the spotlight for operating a food truck in recent weeks in Downtown Auburn. Rather, he said the goal is to develop a set of ground rules for the community as the trend continues to grow. But mobile businesses aren’t limited to cruising cuisine. Industries such as auto repair, pet grooming and even recreation have gone mobile to eliminate higher overhead costs and provide convenience for customers. Take Auburn residents Kelli and Damon Lazalier for example. The husband-wife team started Gamez on Wheelz, a mobile gaming and entertainment service, in May 2011. They do most of their business in Granite Bay, Rocklin and Roseville. By way of a 24-foot trailer, they take the arcade to a hop, skip and a jump from a customer’s front door. When asked how she would feel if similar limitations were placed on her business in fairness to traditional storefronts, she responded with a question of her own. “Well, isn’t competition part of our economy?” she said. “The bottom line is mobile businesses still have employees, they still pay taxes on those employees and they still pay insurance and everything,” Lazalier said. “They just don’t have to pay rent.” Kevin Espley, owner of Auburn-based Affordable Auto Glass, closed his store in 2011 and now operates entirely on a mobile basis, which he said saves him about $1,000 a month. Most of the auto glass repair industry offers mobile service, but he said having a store presents its own advantages. “They do get a little bit more business because they have a brick and mortar store, because people see them there,” Espley said. “But I still pay all the same advertisement expenses. I just don’t have a store front.” Creating regulations specific to food-based mobile businesses is within the city’s authority, said Michael G. Colantuono, the city attorney. “The law is pretty clear that elective legislatures, whether they’re in Sacramento or Auburn, can decide what portion of a public problem to solve,” he said, giving the public health example of regulating safe food temperatures without banning high-calorie soda. Regarding fairness in the restaurant industry, Espley offered a simple solution. “If they don’t like it, they should do it,” Espley said. “You know? It’s America.”