A few weeks ago, a fictional conversation was started between a member of Occupy Wall Street and a banker. Today the Occupier returns to have a conversation with a fellow native of Sonoma County. On the agenda: the proposed rent increase for the Sonoma County Farmers Market.
In July, rent for the about 100-vendor weekly market in the parking lot of the Sonoma County-owned Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building will increase from $23,875 per year to $57,660, an amount officials say would be the going rate. (That’s a $338 per year increase per vendor or about $6.50 a week.) Since 2002, county officials say they have waived more than $156,000 in rent, according to news reports.
Occupier: Well, isn’t this the 1 percent vs. the 99 percent. It’s déjà vu all over again. The small farmers get the shaft with a 140 percent rent increase, and the county walks off with the money. It isn’t fair.
Fellow Sonoma County native: I agree, it is not fair — but not for the reason you cite. It’s not fair because it’s not right that Sonoma County taxpayers are subsidizing what should be left to free enterprise.
Occupier: What? Are you kidding me? These small farmers don’t have the resources to pay a 140 percent increase because the Wall Street bankers have walked off with all the money and left the rest of us holding the bag.
Fellow Sonoma County native: Well, perhaps the market can set up a micro-loan program for the new, small growers who need help to get started. I’d support that. And I think the county keeping the rent low in the early years was probably warranted to help the market get on its feet. But I have to ask you: Do you realize taxpayers are subsidizing a market patronized largely by customers who are fully financially capable of paying the real market price of a rutabaga, not some county-subsidized price? Talk about the rich getting richer off the taxpayer.
Occupier: Yeah, but the system is so weighted toward the rich that one little subsidy for the small farmers seems OK. They need their little piece. If they don’t get help, they might not make it and we’ll all be back to buying all our produce from the supermarket. I love the market: All the people moving about. The music. The aromas of fresh food and lattes.
Fellow Sonoma County native: Yes. I love it too. But should county taxpayers be, in effect, subsidizing the farmer from, say, the Central Valley, or the Jacquard tablecloth stand or someone buying a pound of radicchio for the poolside dinner party for 10?
Occupier: OK. They are part of the 1 percent. They should pay full freight. In fact, they should pay for the startups.
Fellow Sonoma County native: Correct. In fact in real life, the 1 percent does pay for the startups. That’s called investing or venture capital. It could work at the market, too. The problem is, all of these kinds of programs such as the market that are funded by government for one reason or another are well-intended. But the county is nearly broke. It can barely keep the lights on and support public safety, which is actually where taxpayer dollars should be going.
Occupier: Like the money that should be going to the truly vulnerable, not the boomer picking up sushi-grade scallops at the veterans hall parking lot, right?
Fellow Sonoma County native: Right. Let’s keep talking.
Brad Bollinger is the Business Journal editor and associate publisher. He can be reached at 707-521-5241 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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