CNMI Market Vendors Unhappy With New ‘Land’ Fee

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1 percent of sales to be collected for Public Lands department

By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Jan. 8, 2014) – Garapan Street Market vendors in the CNMI are questioning a "land fee" equal to 1 percent of their gross sales that the Commonwealth Council for Arts and Culture (CCAC)—under agreement with the Department of Public Lands (DPL)—now requires them to pay for selling goods every Thursday at the Garapan Fishing Base.

This land fee is on top of what the vendors pay in weekly fee and business gross revenue tax.

"This is ridiculous. It is strong-arming people. The government cannot just require you to pay something by sending you a paper, without even meeting with the vendors to explain this new fee," Thai House Restaurant president Jack Hudak told Saipan Tribune yesterday.

Hudak, who opened the first Thai restaurant in the CNMI in 1993 and is one of the original vendors at the Garapan Street Market, said he is not paying the 1 percent land fee until CCAC and DPL meet with the vendors to explain the fee.

"We were told if we stay here [instead of returning to Paseo De Marianas], we’re not going to be charged extra. Now they’re charging us extra. They should have been honest with us," said Hudak.

Angel S. Hocog, executive director of CCAC that oversees the Garapan Street Market, said CCAC has a temporary agreement with DPL that requires payment of a land fee that the council is supposed to collect from the vendors based on 1 percent of their total sales from the Thursday night market.

"It’s stipulated in that agreement. This land fee is not illegal. This is not a tax but a fee," he said.

Hocog said there are currently 49 vendors at the Garapan Street Market, and another 20 are on a standby list.

He said if the current vendors do not comply with the 1 percent land fee requirement, then CCAC won’t have a choice but to let them go.

Hocog said CCAC’s temporary agreement with DPL expires in April, and they are trying to negotiate with DPL for the latter to set aside a portion of the collected land fee for CCAC so that it can provide a better maintained site for the vendors.

"Hopefully DPL will give us a portion for beautification and maintenance," Hocog added.

CCAC is under the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs (DCCA).

Both DPL Secretary Pete A. Tenorio and DPL Real Estate Division director Rachel Roque were on leave yesterday.

Frank Ada of Dela Cruz Pastry, another vendor at the Garapan Street Market, said the government is making it hard for small businesses to survive by charging an additional fee for a once-a-week tourism activity mainly for tourism.

"How much more money do they want?" he said. "I think most of the vendors are contesting the land fee."

Another resident helping a relative operate a vendor’s booth said that Garapan Street Market vendors "should not be charged a land fee."

Juan "Pan" T. Guerrero, general manager of Herman’s Modern Bakery, separately said that in his view, CCAC or DCCA "cannot charge land fee as they do not have jurisdiction."

"If vendors are required to pay land fee, it should go to Public Land. DCCA has no authority under any law to charge for land that they do not own. This fee should go to MPLT office or Public Land," Guerrero said.

He said only by law can any agency be granted authority "to tax as fees."

"In the absence of any law, they can deny us to continue as a vendor but not technically," he added.

Guerrero said it seems the government is imposing new fees and charges "out of desperation."

In the "conditions of participation" between vendors and CCAC, No. 4 of the agreement partly states that vendors/sellers are required to "pay all fees imposed by Garapan Street Market Committee."

Guerrero saidm "This has never been imposed in the past and all of a sudden they are requesting for the land fee."

CCAC is now trying to collect the 1 percent land fee covering a few months. For Herman’s Modern Bakery, for example, CCAC is asking payment of the land fee for the months of April to July 2013, based on the vendor’s total sales for these months.

Thai House Restaurant’s Hudak, meanwhile, is trying to meet with all other Garapan Street Market vendors so they could come up with a unified voice against what he describes as an improper land fee.

He is trying to get the vendors’ contact numbers. He is also urging his fellow vendors to get in touch with him through telephone number 235-842.

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