There’s no such thing as a free lunch, the owners of Cornell’s historic food trucks may be discovering soon.
The owners of Louie’s Lunch and the Hot Truck appealed an annual $2,153 fee assessed for the first time last summer, by the Board of Public Works.
On Feb. 27, the board will decide whether or not the truck owners will have to pay the fee, proposed by the board in response to a state audit that indicated the two trucks were selling on city streets without properly paying the city.
Albert Smith, the owner of the Hot Truck, and Ronald Beck, the owner of Louie’s Lunch, have both filed appeals against the permit fee, citing the length of time that they have operated on the sites without paying.
Bill Gray, superintendent of public works for Ithaca, said that the city is revamping its system for charging those who use city land for private purposes, such as vendors on the Commons and the hot truck owners, who will need to pay permit fees.
“Now they’ll be caught up as part of the use of city property program,” Gray said. “So we’ve sent them bills and, not surprisingly, their bills are noticeably different than anything they’ve paid before because, in most cases, apparently, they’ve never paid anything for sitting at the curbside and selling their wares.”
In the early 2000s, Smith bought the Hot Truck from longtime owner Robert “Hot Truck Bob” Petrillose, Sr. for $125,000. Smith said that the value of the truck and its equipment was about $15,000 “so basically we paid over $100,000 for the right to be next to campus.”
Smith said that in purchasing the Hot Truck, he also bought a “grandfathered” right to sell goods on Stewart Avenue. Doing so, he said, gives him the right to occupy the land without paying a fee, just as Petrillose did for many years.
“I’m just talking about being fair and the city wants to collect a couple thousand dollars or a little more per year for me to be in that location,” Smith said. “I already paid for that.”
Gray, however, did not agree that the longevity of the Hot Truck and its status as a “grandfathered” vendor excuses it from the fee.
“Grandfathering usually means that you can continue forward with whatever it is that you were doing, but it doesn’t mean that you are exempt from paying for the right to do that,” Gray said.
Smith, who owns the Shortstop Deli in downtown Ithaca, began attempting to acquire a hot food truck in the ’80s in an effort to expand his business. He said he was told that the city was not giving any more permits for food trucks at the time.
“Then in the [mid-1990s] I served on the Board of Public Works with then-Mayor [Benjamin] Nichols and basically asked him the same question. He said, ‘If you want a truck on-campus, you’re going to have to buy one of the existing trucks,’” Smith said. “I served a second term on the Board of Public Works with [Mayor] Alan Cohen and I asked the same thing and the answer was the same. ‘If you want to have a truck on campus you have to buy one of these trucks.’”
Smith reiterated that he believed he was doing the right thing in purchasing an existing food truck.
“Did I pay the wrong people? I don’t know,” Smith said. “When you have two mayors tell you that’s what you need to do to get one of these spots — I did so.”
Beck, the owner of Louie’s Lunch, did not return a request for comment. He also filed an appeal of the fee.