Hot dogs and pie charts
Council tightens rules on street vendors, tackles budget, backtracks on roundabouts
Joe Gormley sells hot dogs for a living, but fears an ordinance approved by the Chico City Council might force him to look for different work. Outside the panel’s regular meeting on Tuesday (April 19), he told the CN&R that he's concerned that the decision “is going to put me out of business.”
The ordinance modifies city code regarding permits for street vendors selling food, cut flowers and beverages, and allows the city to “respond to problem vendors on a case-by-case basis,” according to a staff report presented by Brendan Ottoboni, the city’s public works-engineering director. It’s written in general terms, but pertains mostly to two vendors—Gormley, who owns the Weiner Man cart and posts up outside Chase Bank on busy evenings, and John Geiger, the owner of the Crazy Dog cart, who’s peddled hot dogs to Chico State students for 16 years.
Gormley is the only food vendor out late on weekends in downtown Chico. He told the council that his prime hours of operation are after midnight, when people are leaving bars. “What I’ve been doing for students and adults, keeping them fed and hydrated, I feel like is a good service,” he said.
Ottoboni’s report says that when the bars close at 2 a.m., the cart draws crowds that spill into roadways and block traffic. They also cause headaches for cops, said Chico police Chief Mike O’Brien. “Our preference is that, when the bars close, people go home,” he said.
The ordinance allows the city to adjust conditions of vendors’ permits to address any such problems. Gormley believes the city intends to shut him down at midnight, which would put him out of business, he said. During a meeting in December 2014, the council considered an ordinance that would shut down all vendor sales at midnight. Instead, the panel decided to take an approach that would allow for problems to be addressed individually, which they codified during Tuesday’s meeting.
“I’ve operated for seven years with zero problems,” Gormley told the council.
Geiger, meanwhile, is concerned that the city will boot Crazy Dog from its longtime spot on the sidewalk in front of the southwest entrance to campus on Warner Street. There, he capitalizes on heavy foot traffic on school days, he said, and it’s the only location where he can make a living. Here’s the thing: The sidewalk is owned by the city, not the university, and since a Chico Fire Department ladder truck and police car recently had to use the entrance—Geiger says his cart wasn’t in the way—there’s concern that the cart may block emergency vehicles.
Councilwoman Ann Schwab made a motion to adopt the ordinance as written, adding that it “gives us a lot of discretion to apply the guidelines of what we think is safe.” Her motion passed unanimously.
It remains to be seen whether the city will change either vendor’s permit. In any case, after the meeting, Geiger announced via Facebook that Crazy Dog, previously up for sale, is now off the market. “I don’t feel right selling [the cart] while things are in flux,” he wrote.
The council also began reviewing the city’s draft proposed budget for fiscal year 2016-17, which is no small task. Rather than holding one marathon budget session in June, the panel will be taking it piece-by-piece over the next two months.
Administrative Services Director Frank Fields compared the city’s financial situation to recovering from drug addiction.
“One thing I’ve noticed with recovery: The real work doesn’t begin until you go back home,” he said. “Are we going to keep hanging out with the same people, or are we going to do things differently for our long-term health?”
In his analogy, falling into old habits would be spending the city’s money without foresight. That’s why Chico faced an $8 million general fund deficit three years ago, Fields said. The council’s conservative budgeting righted the ship—the city is projected to have $1.4 million in its reserve at the end of 2016-17—and Fields recommended continued restraint moving forward.
In the coming fiscal year, city revenue is expected to increase by about 3 percent. The general fund budget is estimated at $49 million, while expenditures are projected at $47.8 million. After being depleted during the Great Recession, the city’s general liability insurance fund has $2 million in reserves, while the workers’ compensation insurance fund is estimated at $3.8 million.
Still, there are reasons for concern, Fields said. Revenue isn’t keeping pace with inflation, experts are forecasting another recession, and employee-related fixed-cost increases—CalPERS contributions, health insurance and workers’ compensation—keep going up.
The council will continue reviewing the budget during its meeting on May 3.
In other council news, the panel appears to be balking on its decision to add roundabouts to The Esplanade at the intersections of First Avenue and Memorial Way. The panel had approved them by two 4-to-3 votes during a special meeting on Thursday (April 14), but prior to the meeting on Tuesday, Councilman Randall Stone announced he was rescinding his votes in favor of the roundabouts due to public outcry.
Following Mayor Mark Sorensen’s lead, the council voted 7-0 to schedule another special meeting on The Esplanade for sometime next week.