Public Watchdog.org

City Getting More Into The “Business” Of The Farmers Market

10.10.17

We dislike public-private ventures where governmental bodies and private businesses combine in what should be purely private enterprises.

The reasons?

First, because those types of arrangements rarely are essential functions of governmental bodies. Second, the private-sector business people who look for such fusion opportunities tend to be a lot slicker negotiators than their public-sector counterparts. And third, even when the public officials aren’t being out-negotiated, they often end up carrying the water for some special interest or other, usually resulting in a windfall of tax dollars and no accountability.

We’ve seen that happen with boondoggles like the Economic Development Corporation, the Facade Improvement Program, the Uptown Redevelopment project and annual giveaways of taxpayer cash to private non-profit corporations like Taste of Park Ridge (“TOPR”), the Center of Concern, Meals On Wheels, and other such community organizations that went on for years with no thought whatsoever of demanding accountability for that money.

Today’s boondoggle du jour is the Farmers Market, which reportedly has been a favored special interest since the days of mayor Marty Butler.

Why did the City get into the Farmers Market business in the first place, and what was the City supposed to get out of it? Nobody seems to know. And looking back at the bare-bones council meeting minutes from 2006, when the Market’s section of the City Code was last amended, it’s virtually impossible to say.

As noted in the City Attorney’s memo dated August 10, 2017, the running of the Market has apparently been so ignored by the City that:

* the Market “has operated outside the regular budget and procurement process…”;

* the Market “has not broken even…” thereby requiring “the City to underwrite some expenses with taxpayer dollars (e.g., AT&T parking lot lease)”; and

* “despite…selling out its vendor permits for each of the last several years, the cost charged for a permit has not been enough to cover the Market’s expense, “ which has dinged Park Ridge taxpayers for about $3,000 each year.

Why, then, did Alds. John Moran (1st), Gail Wilkening (3d), Charlie Melidosian (5th), Marc Mazzuca (6th) and Marty Joyce (7th) vote to amend the Farmers Market Ordinance (Article 12, Chapter 7 of the City Code) at the Council’s October 2 meeting instead of deferring that action and re-visiting whether the Market should have a place in the City Code at all?

According to Mazzuca at the September 25, 2017 COW meeting, the Market is “tradition” and “is in our Code.”

Our Code also has provisions for “Sexually-Oriented Businesses,” “Garage or Yard Sales” and “Valet Parking Businesses,” but we’re not aware of any of those getting City subsidies or their own City committee.

Don’t get us wrong: We like the Farmers Market. This editor is there almost every Saturday, rain or shine. But that doesn’t justify the Council’s treating it like a favored child, or tying it even more closely to the City than it has been up to now.

It’s not like Park Ridge residents live in one of those food “deserts” characteristic of the poverty-ridden neighborhoods of Chicago, where the Market is our only source of fresh produce, meat, bakery, flowers, dog treats, giardiniera, and all the other things sold there. We’ve got our choice of Whole Foods, Mariano’s, Jewel and Trader Joe’s within our own City boundaries, along with a Jerry’s just over the northeast border in Niles, and a Tony’s on Greenwood just a block north of Dempster.

By subsidizing the Farmers Market even nominally (to the tune of $2,000 or so per year) the City is effectively subsidizing private businesses – most of them not based in Park Ridge or run by Park Ridge residents – who actually are competing against those aforementioned taxpaying grocery stores, and some of our smaller businesses like Dolcetti Patisserie & Café.

According to an October 3, 2017 article in the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate (“Elected officials to have say over Park Ridge Farmers Market volunteer committee”), rental fees for Farmers Market vendors were finally raised this year to a whopping $14 per Saturday, or $3.50 per hour for each of the four hours it’s open. That’s chump change, although it probably explains why the Market keeps getting more vendors while increasing its City subsidies – and why the H-A reports that Farmers Market co-chair Jay Crowley wants the City Council “to explore paying someone to [run the Market].”

Gee, did anybody else see that coming?

2d Ward Ald. Nick Milissis was spot-on in calling for a review of the Farmers Market ordinance and wondering why the City appears to be getting even more involved in what should be “a private initiative” like TOPR: A private, non-profit corporation that is permitted to use City property – a portion of Summit Avenue and the “Triangle” and “Library” parking lots – but which in all other respects is treated as an entity separate and apart from the City that pays the City for the police, fire and public works services it uses.

Milissis and Ald. Roger Shubert (4th) were the only two aldermen voting against the amendment and suggesting that the entire concept behind the Farmers Market Ordinance should be re-visited.

We don’t see that happening with a Council that finds “tradition” and “it’s in our Code” handy excuses for avoiding serious policy discussions and continuing to subsidize non-essential services that aren’t being run in a self-sufficient manner, yet will continue to be run by the same people.

To read or post comments, click on title.

9 comments so far

What is the expense of the Farmer’s market to the City? Garbage collection? Police patrol?

I don’t understand where the costs are being incurred that the city has to subsidize. Selling permits isn’t an extra cost to the city as they would sell parking stickers and other items. The trash would get picked up with or without the farmer’s market. I don’t think the city is involved in setting up the tents, but maybe I am wrong. There probably some electricity used by some of the vendors but they should be charged for that. So what is the subsidy for?

EDITOR’S NOTE: We know that the City does not set up the tents, so that isn’t it. Although we could find no explanation related to the September and October meetings, a check of the August 28 P & R COW meeting had CM Gilmore reporting that $1,150 went to AT&T for renting the lot, $800 went for porta potty rental, and approx. $2,500 of insurance costs were provided by the City.

I go to Farmers Market at least a couple times each month and I do not recall being charged sales tax for anything I purchase. Does that mean that, in addition to the $2,000 or so of subsidies the City gives, it gets no sales tax from all the sales made?

EDITOR’S NOTE: We don’t recall being charged sales tax. The vendors count or weigh the purchase, do the math, and charge the result. No taxes we can perceive.

What the majority aldermen on this question don’t understand is the policy considerations – or the lack of policy considerations – behind the Farmers Market. You’re right: We don’t need it because we’ve got plenty of other choices, none of them run by the City or getting money from the city and who put money into the city from property taxes and sales taxes.

If one of those food trucks pulled into the library parking lot and started competing with Holt’s, Harp & Fiddle, etc., I’m sure those aldermen who voted to keep the Farmers Market tied to and subsidized by the city would see the unfairness of it, even if people said they liked the pizza, burritos, corned beef sandwiches the food truck sold.

But what bothers me even more than the bad decision is the shallow thinking exhibited by those five aldermen. “Tradition” and “in the code” is about as dumb as “other towns do it this way.”

I watched the video of the September 25 COW meeting where the city council discussed tying the Market closer to the city, and continuing the subsidies while hoping the Market will not need them, and I was surprised by how superficial were the comments from Alds. Moran, Wilkening, Melidosian, Mazzuca and Joyce. Even Mayor Maloney said nothing of value.

I would like to hear each of those officials explain why the city should continue favoring the Farmers Market and its vendors over our established local merchants, with subsidies and not even collecting sales tax. You mentioned Dolcetti, and there are at least two bakeries at the Market which sell sweet rolls, muffins and other products that compete directly with Dolcetti.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We listened to that video and we agree about the comments. Nobody, including the City Mgr., said anything about sales tax, nor did anybody describe what expenses the Market had that required subsidies.

However, a review of the minutes from the August 28, 2017 Procedures & Regulations COW show that CM Gilmore reported Market expenses as $1,150 per season to lease the lot from AT&T; approx. $800 for porta potty rental; and approx. $2,500 to use the City’s insurance.

It’s time to admit that the Farmers Market is a relic of earlier times when it was a fashionable thing for upscale suburbs to have, before there were the Trader Joe’s and the the Whole Foods, and before Jewel and Dominick’s (now Mariano’s) upgraded their produce to compete.

It’s also time to admit that the vendors at Farmers Market are looking for the easiest way to maximize their profits, in this case by going from one towns Farmers Market to another 7 days a week so they can avoid paying store rent, avoid paying sales tax, avoid paying middlemen to distribute their products, and avoid sharing their profits with rent-paying, sales tax-charging stores.

The Farmers Market provides nothing Park Ridge consumers can’t get in Park Ridge or, on rare occasions, a 10-15 minute drive outside Park Ridge. It’s not a necessity but primarily entertainment, a novel diversion from the way we normally shop for our groceries.

I hope it stays, but not unless it can pay for itself, like all the other Park Ridge merchants who pay rent and taxes without subsidies or any other help from city government.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Interesting and maybe (or not) unique take on the FM – at least one we never thought of, other than your last point.

I was able to confirm through the City Manager that the vendors do pay tax on their transactions at the market so there is some trickle of money back to the city. Nonetheless this proposition is still problematic to me because we now have a city-sponsored and (partially) funded event competing with local businesses, who as stated above support rental properties, employees and generate sales tax year-round as opposed to seasonally. I continue to oppose this on many different levels and do not feel that the justifications that have been provided for further entangling the City are sufficient.

EDITOR’S NOTE: That’s good news, Alderman, although we still remain puzzled by how it is assessed and collected when, for example, a vendor sells jalapenos @ 25 cents each and collects $1 for 4 of them; or the cheese maker sells a half-pound of Apricot Triple Crème @ $19 per pound and collects $9.50?

I agree with Anonymous on 10.13.17 8:15 am. And the more the city gets involved the more likely it will be that city employees will spend more time, and more of our money, doing something that should be a private venture.

To Ald. Milissis’ comment about paying sales tax, I see no way that can be accomplished because the tax is not charged to the purchasers, and the merchants don’t keep any track of their sales (no cash registers or register tapes) so how can it be done?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Maybe taxes are charged on the honor system: “How much in sales did you make today? Okay, you owe us 1% of that.”

I’m guessing the Farmer’s market draws a number of people from nearby Chicago neighborhoods and other towns, who then may stop for a cup of tea or browse the boutiques or have brunch or lunch while they’re here. Seems to me like a nice way to boost local business. But what do I know?

EDITOR’S NOTE: C’mon, Mary, you know that was the same alibi offered by the TOPR folks back when they were trying to defend their years of indefensible subsidies from the City. And you know, or should know, that when Mayor Dave and a couple of aldermen asked for evidence of those benefits there was none.

If the local business “boost” were real, however, those local businesses being boosted – or the Chamber of Commerce – would (or should) be glad to provide the subsidies to the Farmers Market instead of the taxpayers. But it’s not, so they’re not.

Anybody can operate a Farmers Market, or a Taste of Park Ridge, or a Center of Concern, or all sorts of other organizations or events, by asking for a handout from elected officials and staff people whose lives become much easier by making those people happy. I prefer to patronize the local businesses who commit to leases, to employing locals, to paying sales taxes, and who don’t expect handouts from the city or its taxpayers. So sue me.

EDITOR’S NOTE: And amazingly enough, and despite the direst of predictions, once the City ended its subsidies to TOPR, CofC, etc. those organizations and events still managed to stay in business and thrive.



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