NH taxes and food vendors at odds

By Tom Spencer
On May 6, 2014

Campus vendors discussed the prices of doing business with the university and the implication of New Hampshire's property tax on trailers. 

Paul and Dylan Long, who run the Wild Child Express, found the tight rules for resale frustrating. 

"We wanted to sell it, but they told us we can't. [We came] into this thinking we could roll [the business]," Dylan Long said. "They've got us by the balls now." 

Additionally, the contract with the university does now allow the vendors to expand their business. 

"Ideally we would like to have a couple of these around campus because we provide a better quality service than a lot of the [dining plans]," Dylan said.  

Paul Long, Dylan's father and the owner of the Wild Child Express, said, "Business is like this: You don't make a lot of money. You keep it in the family. Then you upgrade and do something else with it. I mean, it's part of the American way. But they cut us off at our knees now."

More experienced vendors, such as Ramon Valdez, the owner of Ramon's on Academic Way, were not frustrated with the rules about resale. Valdez has been working here since 2002, and he has owned the cart since 2005. 

"We knew about [the rule that we couldn't expand or sell the business] when we first came in. They're new. You gotta comply with the university's rules," Valdez said. 

However, Valdez was disappointed with New Hampshire's property tax on "manufactured housing." 

"Every time we turn around, we get hit with something else, either from the university or the town," Valdez said. 

In 1999, the N.H. Supreme Court ruled that RVs, trailers and campers fell under "manufactured housing," and may be taxed as property if they are intended to be more or less permanent, not a temporary structure. They also have to be more or less completely enclosed, used as a dwelling, storehouse or shelter and intended to remain stationary to be taxed as property. 

"I just think, with a town like Durham that's full of businesses, why are they picking on the little guy?" Valdez said. 

"I sent out a letter to the vendors earlier this year about telling them what their tax would be," said Jim Rice, Durham's assessor. "Only one of them knew they were supposed to be taxed. He goes 'I was wondering when you were going to catch up with me!'"

All three vendors agreed this was the first year they had ever been asked for property tax by the town of Durham. 

"I've got mixed feelings about the property tax," said Vinny Cirasole, who owns Higher Grounds. "It's really only a tiny part of doing business as a vendor." 

The businesses also must compete with university-run dining options across campus, from Philbrook, Stillings and Holloway Commons to eight smaller cafes spread across campus, as well as the Dairy Bar to the Philbrook Café

Paul and Dylan Long felt the university wanted to encourage these operations and discourage vendors. 

"Eventually they will weed out all the vendors on the campus when they want to retire," Dylan Long said. "They will be replaced with satellite cafes in a lot of their buildings. [The university] sees the money in that. We're going to run [the Wild Child Express] as long as we can. But we're kind of capped on what we can and can't do." 

"I don't have any specific information relative to the effect on revenue to the dining retail program," Rick MacDonald, the director of business affairs for UNH Dining, said. "I think it is a safe assumption to think that if [the vendors] did not exist, more business would go to the dining-run operations."

"[The cafes] might have some impact on my business, but I've been doing it so long, frankly I do it better than the rest," Cirasole said. "[The university] can open up [a café] around the corner."

On the university's end, there are concerns about campus aesthetics as well. 

"Regarding the look and feel of campus, I am careful about where we would locate such vendors," said Doug Bencks, the director of campus planning and university architect. "For example, I wouldn't put them out on the Great Lawn." 

The vendors are also limited in location by access to electricity. "One of the limitations is that they typically need a power connection that they have to pay for," Bencks said. "In many places on campus where the power is underground, this is very expensive so they usually like to be near a utility pole with a transformer on it. This is getting real technical, but it does limit the options for them."

Valdez is not alone in his discontent with the property tax. There are stories of complaints from all across New Hampshire of inconsistent application of the law, and the complication of what once maid trailers, RVs and campers an affordable option for recreation or business. 

Such discontent even prompted Senate Bill 333 sponsored by Senator Jeanie Forrester, an attempt to make RVs exempt from property tax. The New Hampshire senate carried the bill 24-0 in January. 

However, the vendors feel capable of coping with these challenges, each in different ways. 

The Wild Child Express offers Pick Your Own Lemon lemonade along with Vodka Fridays, in which they will mix a shot of vodka in with your drink. 

Valdez feels he offers "just really good food and coffee that keeps people coming back." He also stays in the summer to work with contractors. 

Cirasole is not concerned either.

"My customers really appreciate my being here," Cirasole said. "I'm pretty well established."

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