In spring 2013, Masters of Public Policy students at The George Washington University conducted research on local policy options for food truck regulations for the NLC. This blog post is based on their preliminary report, which will be made available to NLC members as a policy toolkit in the coming months.
Food trucks have expanded rapidly in both numbers and popularity over the past few years, and many cities are finding themselves ill-equipped to deal with these vendors from a regulatory perspective. Communities across the country, from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, are part of a burgeoning movement to find ways to better manage and regulate mobile vending.
City ordinances related to mobile vending were largely written decades ago, with vendors such as ice cream trucks, hot dog carts and sidewalk peddlers in mind. Needless to say, food trucks are not your mother’s mobile vending experience. Most use large vehicles equipped with high-tech cooking equipment and sanitation devices to provide sophisticated, safe cuisine usually prepared to order (rather than pre-cooked).
So, what policy options do local governments have to regulate food trucks and incorporate food trucks into the fabric of a city?
City-specific solutions are definitely in order, but there are an emerging set of best practices to help tailor regulations so that both the city and the vendors realize the full spectrum of economic and social benefits that food trucks can bring to a community. Our evaluation produced some overall recommendations for NLC members, including:
- Conduct town hall forums and private meetings with core stakeholders
- Encourage dialogue and the building of relationships among competing stakeholders
- Identify private vacant lots to create partnerships for mobile vendors to gather and sell
- Designate public spaces specifically for mobile vending
In addition to the above recommendations, pilot programs can be a useful way to determine what regulations to adopt. Las Vegas currently has a pilot program in place that sets aside a certain number of downtown parking spaces as food truck parking only, and has a lottery system in place for those spaces.
Regulations can also incorporate strategies that steer food trucks to underserved areas of a city to address equity concerns, encourage economic development and alleviate food deserts. Cities such as Denver and Cincinnati have recognized the need for a targeted approach that brings food trucks to parts of the city outside of the core business district. Denver has considered several issues that might impact or encourage economic development, including whether food truck clustering combats food deserts, where restaurant options are constrained and the ability of food trucks to activate underutilized space (like surface parking lots). Cincinnati has seven mobile food truck zones in strategic places around the city.
Due to their low start-up and upkeep costs, food trucks are proving to be an innovative way for entrepreneurs to create viable businesses, particularly as recent economic conditions have made it more difficult to start and operate a conventional restaurant.
The National Restaurant Association reports that they generated approximately $650 million in revenue in 2012– about 1 percent of total U.S. restaurant sales. And a recent research report by the Intuit Network predicts that food trucks will generate between 3 and 4 percent of total restaurant revenue – about $2.7 billion – by 2017, a fourfold increase from 2012. A 2011 survey by the research firm Technomic showed that 91 percent of respondents believe the food truck industry has staying power and is not a passing trend.
At a recent Food Truck Association event in Washington, D.C., food truck supporters had plenty of praise for the modern mobile vending industry. John Gaber, an urban planning professor at the University of Arkansas, noted that “food trucks are great things for communities; they provide more ‘eyes on the street’ for public safety and compliment the surrounding brick-and-mortar businesses.”
How will your city tap into these potential new sources of economic growth, entrepreneurship, equity, redevelopment, public safety, and community “flavor”?
I live in a region that is nationally known for its traffic congestion. In virtually every poll, newspaper article, or blog on the topic (google “DC region traffic congestion” for proof), the DC metro area is up in the ranks. Somewhat under the radar are the initiatives taking place throughout the region to provide viable alternatives to residents who are desperately trying to avoid driving (and road rage). Of course, Capital Bikeshare has quite a reputation these days; it’s been so popular that a network that was once only in Washington DC quickly expanded to Arlington and soon will be finding its way to Montgomery County. However, less known is that since the region’s Transportation Planning Board adopted a regional complete streets policy, a number of local jurisdictions and transportation agencies have adopted and started implementing their own versions of it. And in my own hometown of Washington DC, where we’ve had a complete streets policy for a few years, the Department of Transportation also recently started a campaign, “Move DC,” to develop a multi-modal, long-range transportation plan.
I write all this to say that in any given city and region, transportation departments are embarking on countless such initiatives to increase efficiencies and enhance user experience of transit. And while these systemic efforts to coordinate and collaborate on a large scale is critical (we’ve discussed the importance of partnerships many a time), I think that perhaps the devil is in the design details.
According to Smart Growth America, nearly 130 communities adopted complete streets policies in 2012. As part of complete streets, cities are encouraged to think about integrated, holistic roadway design that not only accommodates all modes of travel, but also serves residents with varied needs. From aging populations to those with physical disabilities, residents have different demands of a street and of transit. And regardless of whether or not a city decides to implement a complete streets policy, it is critical that these groups and their interests are represented in roadway planning and implementation processes to ensure that the “small” details (think: sidewalk and curb design; crosswalk timings) actually work for everyone. [Design (and plan) with everyone in mind]
Apart from the nuts and bolts of roadway design, cities are also looking into technology as a means to enhance user experience. As part of the “Move DC” efforts, the city has tagged intelligent transportation systems (ITS) in their list of options to explore further. ITS applications use ‘smart’ technologies to improve the efficiency, coordination and delivery of services, including roadway and traffic management. Applications such as transit signal priority in Tacoma, Wash. and Chicago, Ill.; emergency vehicle preemption in Plano, Texas and St. Paul, Minn.; and red light enforcement cameras in Scottsdale, Ariz. and Raleigh, N.C. are some examples of the ways that ITS technologies can not only contribute to more effective, efficient, and safe transit and roadway systems, but also save cities money, time, and resources (this report gives more details on the examples listed). While ITS is a large umbrella under which a range of technology applications fall, cities have an opportunity here to identify those specific technologies that would be most useful to not only meet current transit demands, but actually account for and enhance future ridership. [Design intelligently]
ITS or no ITS, cities can (and do) plan transportation better when the end user experience is thought about early in the planning stages. Complete streets and intelligent transportation systems are only two umbrella concepts in a whole menu of strategies that transportation departments can turn to when attempting to create an integrated, effective system that is actually based on user demand and user experience. These are meant to serve as inspiration, and perhaps examples of a larger idea that is best captured by the title of one of my favorite books on the power of design to improve lives: [“Design like you give a damn”]
Here at NLC’s Sustainable Cities Institute, we’ve spent the last several months curating and adding to the wealth of transportation resources already on our site, www.sustainablecitiesinstitute.org. We’ve included more reports, guides and model policies on complete streets, bike share, and carshare, to name a few. Check out our new resources and, as always, email us at email@example.com with any questions, comments or suggestions!
This is the fourth and final part of the series on the Public Employee Pension Transparency Act of 2013, also known as PEPTA.
Why does the National League of Cities oppose a bill that ostensibly would bring greater transparency to public employee pensions, and ensure that they are fiscally sound and sustainable?
Simply put, the Public Employee Pension Transparency Act of 2013 (PEPTA), which was introduced in April by Rep. Nunes in the House, and Sen. Burr in the Senate, would represent an unwarranted and unjustified intrusion by the federal government in the activities and responsibilities of the states and local governments.
Since the Great Depression, when the Social Security Act explicitly exempted employees of the federal, state and local governments from participation in the nation’s Social Security system, state and local governments have provided their employees with public pension plans designed to provide their employees with some level of income support during retirement.
Each of the states and many of the localities developed these pensions in response to the specific needs of their employees. For example, most local governments have one type of retirement for their public safety employees – who generally retire at a younger age than their civil service counterparts – and another type of pension for their regular employees.
These retirement plans were either incorporated into state constitutions or state laws that established strict contribution and pay out requirements, including the number of years such contributions must be made as well as the percentage that employers and employees will contribute. And most importantly, these retirement systems were placed in public trusts that could not be used for any other purpose than to support and sustain the retirement benefits of former employees.
Every state and local retirement plan has been subject to the oversight of a board of trustees and the review of state and local elected officials, auditors and the public. In addition, each retirement plan must report its financial status using general accepted accounting procedures that are prescribed by the Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) which was established in 1984 to establish and improve standards of state and local governmental accounting and financial reporting that will result in useful information for users of financial reports and guide and educate the public, including issuers, auditors, and users of those financial reports. Since then, most if not all, state and local governments have followed GASB’s reporting rules for public pensions.
In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, PEPTA would mandate a costly and complex layer of federal reporting on top of existing state and local accounting and reporting requirements; give federal regulators sweeping powers to impose duplicative reporting requirements on state and local governments; jeopardize state and local financing of infrastructure and other critical needs by stripping the tax exempt status of bonds issued by states and localities if they do not comply with regulators’ rules (even though historically state and local pensions are subject to state constitutions and state and local laws and regulations); and threatens far-reaching and unintended consequences for the municipal bond market and the economy as a whole.
If the bill became law it would falsely depict the true condition of state and local governments and their retirement systems. For example, it would require that state and local governments report their pension returns as if they invested only in low yield U.S. Treasury bonds, not the diversified portfolios actually in use, thereby implying a significantly larger unfunded liability than is actually the case. Moreover, it would do nothing to increase transparency. Public pensions are among the most transparent and open financial systems in the nation given their auditing and public review requirements. Nor would it improve accountability. Rather it would pre-empt a multi-year, multi-level effort by GASB that is now being implemented to ensure public pension transparency.
The claim by Rep. Nunes and Sen. Burr and their colleagues that public pension funds are “Often hidden by opaque accounting practices, the costs [for which] are driving an increasing number of states and municipalities toward insolvency, and therefore in need of federal intervention, “is wrong. This bill is unnecessary, unwarranted and should not be adopted into law.
This is the third in a four part series on the Public Employee Pension Transparency Act of 2013, also known as PEPTA.
To “protect” the federal government from any responsibility for state or local fiscal problems, Reps. Nunes, Ryan and Issa, in the House, and Sens. Burr, Coburn and Thune, in the Senate, have introduced PEPTA, which if it became law, would prohibit the federal government from bailing out states or localities, and would force states and localities to meet certain federally established pension reporting requirements in order to maintain their right to issue tax free municipal bonds. Failure to comply with the requirements of the Act would mean that states and localities would have to go to the taxable bond market to raise funds for infrastructure and other legitimate state and local activities.
So, if you thought that efforts to tax municipal bonds were the only legislative threat to the future of tax exempt municipal bonds, think again.
PEPTA would direct the U.S. Department of the Treasury to issue new public pension plan reporting requirements that public pension plan sponsors and administrators would have to follow when reporting their assets and liabilities.
Rep. Nunes, in a statement outlining the reasons for this bill, said that it was necessary for states and local pension plans to disclose their liabilities in a “uniform and transparent manner based on widely accepted accounting principles.” Without these new and transparent reporting requirements, he added, state and local pension plans would continue to hide significant fiscal problems behind various and misleading state and local pension plan reports.
What Rep. Nunes did not state is that all public pension plans are subject to stringent state and local reporting requirements that are set in state statutes and local ordinances and regulations; that all reporting must meet generally accepted accounting principles established by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB), which just this year issued new reporting requirements designed to highlight the unfunded liabilities associated with public pension plans; and that these reports are subject to review by elected officials, trustees, auditors, and the general public.
He also did not state that since 2008, 45 states have adopted legislation to reform their state and local pension systems. These reforms were adopted to ensure the long term viability and sustainability of their pension systems and were done without any prodding or initiative by the federal government.
What he also did not say is that Wall Street bankers and investors, who until now have had little control over the nearly $3 trillion in public pension assets, are eyeing those assets as yet another pool of funds from which to draw substantial income.
This is the second in a four part series on the Public Employee Pension Transparency Act of 2013, also known as PEPTA.
Many members of Congress have expressed the belief that many state and local pension plans are about to fail, and that cities and towns across the nation are about to default on their municipal bonds.
House members and senators have introduced legislation designed to address this. Known as PEPTA, the House and Senate versions of the bill would seek to insulate the federal government and the American taxpayers from any responsibility for public pension failures or municipal bond defaults.
Despite the fact that there is no evidence that either public pension plans are about to collapse or that states, cities or towns are about to default on their municipal bonds, these same members of Congress have decided that some type of federal action must be taken to prevent public pension plans from collapsing and municipal bonds from failing, and if it does, from impacting the federal government and the American taxpayer. What they have proposed is to add a new and significant public pension plan reporting burden that is linked to the ability of a state, city or town to issue tax exempt bonds.
However, as has been the case before, the opinions of members of Congress and the facts do not agree.
Here are the facts:
First, states cannot file for bankruptcy. They are sovereign entities, established under the Constitution of the United States, and as such have independent taxing and spending powers that they may use to balance their budgets and avoid insolvency. Moreover, no federal law exists that gives states the power to declare bankruptcy or seek bankruptcy protection.
Second, while municipalities as corporations may file for bankruptcy under Chapter IX of the bankruptcy code, the rules of bankruptcy for cities and towns are highly circumscribed and may include limitations such as the requirement that the state legislature must approve any and all municipal bankruptcy filings.
Third, while states and localities have faced growing budget deficits due to the Great Recession, most have addressed these challenges by making tough spending cuts, raising taxes, and reducing overall employment. In fact, Fitch, one of the three municipal bonds rating agencies, has said that states, cities and towns have done a significantly better job of addressing their fiscal challenges than the federal government.
Fourth, during this time unfunded pension and health care liabilities have grown because of the lower rate of return on investments and deferred annual contributions. However, since 2008, 45 states have modified their pension plans to help mitigate and ultimately eliminate unfunded liabilities, and numerous cities and towns have done the same. Increasingly, data document that while still facing difficulties, state and local pensions are becoming increasingly viable and sustainable.
Finally, governors and other state leaders have declared their opposition to any congressional action that would permit states to file for bankruptcy protections.
Shepherdstown, West Virginia (population under 2,000) matches the historic charm of a Shenandoah Valley retreat with the energy and entrepreneurship usually found in a more urban setting. In the competition for best in class among small communities, Shepherdstown punches above its size and weight.
Ignore the pre-Revolutionary founding (1762) and the advantages of geography (77 miles from the center of the Washington, D.C. metro area and 10 miles from two National Parks made famous by the Civil War). Shepherdstown has thrived because of the commitments by average citizens, the constant effort to offer events and activities that showcase local resources, the relationship with a local liberal arts college, and a capacity for entrepreneurship.
On a single weekend, a resident or visitor in Shepherdstown can listen to live Blue Grass music at the restored Opera House, spend all day outdoors in a town park celebrating Earth Day, visit renovated historic homes as part of a countywide Garden Club program, buy fresh ramps (seasonal onions) at a farmers market or stroll the shops and restaurants of German Street, the main street.
While there is one significant vacant storefront along German Street, what you notice are the wide well-maintained sidewalks and the excellent condition of the older buildings – each having significant architectural qualities. These conditions of course don’t happen by accident. They are the work of average citizens, anchor institutions, and the local government taking action in support of an entire community’s prosperity. The outcomes are the tangible result of entrepreneurship and civic pride.
The historic Reynolds House for example, is a circa 1869 property on a lot laid out by town founder Thomas Shepherd and lovingly restored to its original condition by the current occupants. Shepherd University has two properties in the heart of downtown. The Greek Revival building now known as McMurran Hall, formerly the town hall, was the school’s first building and remains in use today. A smaller building just up the street houses a center for Civil War studies.
The Entler Hotel, at the east end of the main street, thrived for most of the 19th and part of the 20th century as a commercial inn but deteriorated to a state of near collapse by the 1970’s. Saved by the municipal leaders and a special act of the West Virginia legislature, the Entler is now managed as the Historic Shepherdstown Museum. The Visitor Center for Shepherdstown is also housed in this building.
Ultimately, it is the people one encounters that makes a beautiful place truly inviting. The volunteers in the visitor center are gracious and knowledgeable. A growing crop of well-managed and reasonably priced restaurants and niche shops have owners and staff (often college students) who seem truly delighted to see you in their establishments. Even a casual brush with the locals, as visitors seek directions or point with a quizzical look at the old stone carriage steps, makes for an experience in hospitality and enjoyment.
Shepherdstown is a place people want to visit and a place to which they want to return. There will always be challenges but the people and the institutions seem well suited to meeting those challenges and keeping one step ahead of changing conditions.