Egging them on

Farmers research state laws to show city its fees aren’t all they’re cracked up to be
Sunday, April 11, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:08 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

When the Columbia Health Department sent Mike Knoll a letter saying he had to start paying $150 for city business license and health inspection fees to sell his eggs at the Columbia Farmers Market, he stopped selling his eggs there.

“I wasn’t going to pay that fee, and I don’t think anybody really did,” said Knoll, who runs Bonne Femme Farm LLC.

Last summer the Columbia Health Department sent a letter to all Columbia Farmers Market egg vendors demanding they buy a $25 city business license and pay a $125 health inspection fee, which included funding for a criminal background check, for a total cost of $150.

“They wanted to see if we were upstanding enough to sell eggs,” Knoll said.

Before this, egg vendors only had to buy a $5 wholesale or $10 retail state license fee.

Extra fee wasn't legal

So, egg vendors and Guy Clark, the president of the Columbia Farmers Market, took matters into their own hands. They did some research on the Internet and found two state statutes that deny the city the right to charge vendors.

Missouri state statute 71.630 says, “No incorporated city, town or village in this state shall have power to levy or collect any tax, license or fees from any farmer, or producer or producers, for the sale of produce raised by him, her or them, when sold from his, her or their wagon, cart or vehicle, or from any person or persons in the employ of such farmer or producer in any such city, town or village.”

State statute 150.030 says almost the same thing, but applies this mandate to counties as well.

“We ended up just getting a lawyer to tell them (the city) that they couldn’t charge us that,” Knoll said.

The city repealed the fee.

“We had our legal staff look over the letters and statutes and they agreed,” said Gerry Worley, environmental health manager with the Columbia/Boone County Health Department.

As to the reason for the fee, the answer is a little unclear. Worley said the reason was a city ordinance that says food establishments making less than $250,000 require the $125 health inspection fee. But he said another city ordinance exempts raw produce from that fee. The real issue, he said, was whether eggs are raw produce.

“Up until this issue, we thought they weren’t (raw produce),” Worley said.

Another complicating factor is that meat vendors and “value-added” product vendors who sell things such as jam or pickles have always had to pay the $150 fee. When the fee was first enacted, the city said it was because eggs were a value-added product.

“They said that washing the eggs off after we take them out from underneath the hens was adding value to them,” said Jim Thomas, egg vendor from Share Life Farms.

As to why the fee hadn’t been instituted before, Worley said, “I don’t know; I guess they just slipped under our radar.”

The city now has removed the fee for meat vendors and egg vendors but has kept it in place for value-added products; eggs are no longer considered a value-added product and are now considered raw produce.

“We’re still working on whether the statutes can apply to the value-added products, too,” said Guy Clark, president of the Columbia Farmers Market.

Meat vendors thinking about trying to get refunds

Some meat vendors have had to pay the fee for years and now that the fee has been taken away, some are wondering whether the city owes them some money.

“I don’t think they could, but if one were to push it ... I don’t know,” Clark said about getting a refund from the city.

The mandatory state license for all vendors includes an inspection, and those inspectors also were baffled by the implementation of the added fee for egg vendors.

“Even the state inspectors coming through were asking, ‘What’s going on here?’” Clark said.

Clark is also working with the Missouri Department of Agriculture, which has found that a lot of other towns in Missouri are having problems with their city government in relation to farmers markets.

“This may have a big effect across the state,” Clark said.

So far, the Boone County Farmers Market has had no involvement in this issue.

“No one came to me with any problems; we weren’t really aware of the concern,” said Steve Sapp, president of the Boone County Farmers Market.

Free from the $150 fee, egg vendors, including the reappearing Knoll, were out in full force starting at 8 a.m. Saturday at the Columbia Farmers Market, state licenses hanging from their tables.

“The eggs are usually gone by 8:45 or so,” Knoll said.

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