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City council revisits food truck regulations

By Geoff Ritter
updated: 3/15/2019 11:50 AM

Tuesday's meeting of the city council was full of "food for thought," as the mayor put it.

Once again, the council entered into a wide-ranging discussion about the operation of food trucks in the city -- something city leaders most recently approved in 2016, although that action limited licensed operation to just five public places in the city, and also imposed a criminal background check that some critics have said is far too strict.

The council originally took up a discussion of possible revisions last spring and returned to the topic Tuesday evening. At issue is a possible expansion of food truck licensing to include more public properties and rights-of-way, as well as easing those criminal background checks. At the same time, however, some argue the trucks bring unfair competition to established brick-and-mortar eateries, which have made significant investments in facilities and also pay property taxes.

Councilman Adam Loos said the issue comes down to the definition of capitalism, and that the city should not be in the business of picking winners and losers. He contended that Carbondale government has spent years protecting established businesses, to the detriment of new potential businesses. He suggested removing all restrictions regarding what public properties on which food trucks can operate.

"If you want to park your food truck on South Illinois Avenue and sell food out of it, good," Loos said. "I want you to do that.

"We're not here to protect businesses," he continued. "Either you survive or you go out of business."

While Loos was the most vocal participant in the discussion, others chimed in. Councilman Jeff Doherty said he was not in favor of relaxing the current regulations, which allow food truck sales only at Attucks Park, Turley Park, Town Square/Veterans Park, the city parking lot near East Mill and South Washington streets, and the Superblock sports complex.

Doherty said that existing brick-and-mortar restaurants not only made investments in their properties and pay the accompanying taxes, but they also pay the city's food and beverage tax that has been used to fund downtown revitalization projects. Doherty added that declining enrollment at SIU complicates the issue for existing businesses.

"I just think this is the wrong time to do it," Doherty said.

Loos countered that, in fact, this is the "right time to do it," and he said the notion that the food and beverage tax has been harmful to businesses is a "canard," since the 2 percent tax is passed on with no cost to restaurants and adds only a fraction to the final cost of a meal.

Councilman Tom Grant said food trucks should not be allowed to set up right in front of existing brick-and-mortar restaurants.

Councilwoman Carolin Harvey questioned the current criminal background guidelines, which currently inquire about the most recent five years of a license applicant's background.

"We have to have some regulations on this," Mayor Mike Henry said at the discussion's conclusion. "I'd like to see us ease up a little bit on the criminal background checks. I think we have a lot of food for thought.

"I'd like to keep them here," Henry concluded about the food truck operators.

The issue will return to the council in the future.