Editorial: Haven’t renewed your county business license yet? It could cost you hundreds of dollars
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As a person who has the misfortune of doing business in unincorporated DeKalb County, I’d like to start by congratulating the county government and its Board of Commissioners.
I did not think the county could make renewing a business license more costly, cumbersome or time consuming than it already is. But this week, the county proved me wrong.
I learned that even though county occupational taxes are not actually delinquent until April 15, the county has arbitrarily assigned new renewal deadlines. Many business owners, including myself, never get renewal notices unless we bug the county for them. This year was no exception.
People who miss these new deadlines are on the hook for a lot of money. How much? Check it out:
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Your eyes do not deceive you. The county will charge you $100 extra if you file your renewal paperwork tomorrow, Feb. 28, $300 more if you file it on March 1 and $600 (!) more if you file it on April 1, which is unfortunately not an April Fool’s Day joke.
Keep in mind that a business license is not considered delinquent until April 15. Under the law, I am in compliance if I drop off all of my paperwork on April 15 and pay my renewal fee.
When a reader brought this to my attention, I thought she must be high. Then I researched the matter myself and concluded the county definitely is high if they think that business owners should be on the hook for failing to return renewal notices the county never even mailed.
County Commissioners adopted this new set of fees back in October, but apparently neglected to inform the business community about its plan to penalize us for the county’s incompetence.
Also, another fun new requirement: the county is requiring you to turn over a copy of your previous year’s tax returns to prove your gross receipts for the year:
DeKalb County, which struggles to accurately assess and mail you a water bill, would like unfettered access to your private financial data.
Forgive me if I’m not eager to provide this information to our county officials.
In a panic, I spent most of this morning calling around to figure out what the hell I should do. The first quarter in any business is always hard and this definitely is not the time for county officials to treat business owners like we are the county’s piggy bank.
The employee on the phone was nice and said they wouldn’t require me to bring in my tax returns, which is good since I haven’t finished them for this year and also weird since that’s what the county now says it requires. But whatever.
I went down to the business license office today, showed the county my paperwork, did an estimate of my revenue for the upcoming year (that’s always a fun game to play) and the employee signed my renewal application and filed it away somewhere. In prior years, I have paid for my renewals when I submit my renewal paperwork, which I always have to do in person because they never mail me the renewal notices. I asked the clerk what I owed, and she said, “you’ll get the invoice in the mail.”
“Thanks … I guess,” I said.
“You’re welcome, I guess,” she replied.
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My suspicion is the county would prefer not to have us hyperventilating over their wonderful new fees while sitting in the county office. The county has a long line of people behind you waiting to sign up for their future fleecing.
Anyone who doesn’t already know about the new late fees and turns in their renewal paperwork can expect a nasty surprise in the mail, particularly if they file after April 1.
DeKalb’s turn toward gouging business owners is particularly distressing because I’ve spent the last three years telling everyone in county government who would listen that I’ve had root canals that were more fun than getting my license renewed. Aside from business owners having to chase the county down to get a renewal notice, there’s also the practice of the county assessing your license fee based on your gross income. Not your net income after expenses. Your gross.
If you go just by my gross income, I look like a financial genius. Once you subtract all of my various expenses, my profit is modest, in a good year. I’m not complaining. This gig definitely beats doing real work, but the theory behind assessing the fees this way doesn’t make much sense. I am a home-based business, so I don’t require any more services than what the county already provides me as a homeowner. My gross revenue going up doesn’t mean I receive any additional support from the county.
I am told other governments do it this way, but why anyone would do it this way beyond me.
Decatur does not do it that way, I should note. When I lived in the city limits, I paid an annual fee based on my class of business. Home-based businesses paid the lowest fee. It was pretty sweet, actually, so maybe Decatur spoiled me.
They also mailed my renewal notices on time.
What I have tried to impress upon county officials again and again is how many people don’t have a county business license because the process is so complicated and the county is unlikely to call them on it unless they are creating a nuisance. My business has a very public face and I’m always causing a nuisance, so it’s in my best interest to ensure my paperwork is in order.
I’m willing to bet there are numerous other business owners, particularly home-based business owners, who simply do not bother getting a DeKalb County business license. The current system already penalized people for being honest well before the county added all these crazy fees to it.
For people wondering why anyone would want to join an existing or new city, I would submit DeKalb County government as Exhibit A. The county often fails at government’s most basic functions, and when they try harder, they somehow make it worse.
DeKalb County, CEO Mike Thurmond in particular, please listen to me: this ain’t rocket science. Let me help you streamline your business license process and increase compliance in a few easy steps.
1) Create a tier system for business licenses. Home-based businesses pay one thing, attorneys pay another thing, smoke stacks pay something else, and so on. The cost of a license should reflect the cost of the services the county actually provides to a business.
2) Send out renewal notices and allow them to be paid online. The Georgia Secretary of State allows me to complete my license renewal in less than five minutes. I give them the credit card number. They process it. That’s it. Boom. Done.
3) Send out renewal notices on time, at the same time every year. These notices should not be a surprise to anyone.
That will make the process easier and bring people into compliance who haven’t been, increasing your revenue.
County officials should not look at the business license process itself as a money-making opportunity.
Small businesses like mine create revenue for the county when they invest in our community, spending money at local companies and hiring local people. The business license should really be a nominal fee, at most, and should be viewed as a way to ensure people are doing business lawfully within the county.
To be clear, I want to pay my fair share of what it costs the county to pay for police and fire services and keep the roads paved. I recognize that there’s a cost to these things. Unfortunately, the county seems intent on shifting that cost to people who follow the rules while unintentionally exempting people who ignore them.
DeKalb County commissioners need to put their economic development hats on here and think of ways to make doing business easier, not harder. A community’s business climate should be like a warm pool that’s open to everyone. Doing business in DeKalb County is more like an obstacle course.
It doesn’t have to be this way. It doesn’t need to be.
Recently, the county Development Authority launched a multi-million dollar re-branding effort to encourage economic investment in DeKalb and bolster the county’s image. It turns out the county has developed a bad reputation in the business community over the years.
I have no idea how that could’ve happened.
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