"We're not trying to nickel and dime people to death," said Dade County Clerk Don Townsend (above). "We're just trying to keep it a level playing field for everyone involved."
Townsend, looking perhaps a tad embattled, was answering questions about Dade's new business license-slash-occupation tax requirement, which has raised a few questions if not hackles in the county though Townsend says actual complaints have been highly localized. Only one business owner has spoken up against the new requirement, said Townsend, though he admits that that one made a pretty good job of it.
The new rule is that anyone operating a business within unincorporated Dade County—which is to say, outside the city of Trenton, which already had a business license requirement in place—must register with the county commission and pay a $20 administrative fee plus a tax of anywhere from $32.50 to $610, depending on the business's number of employees. Which is to say, $52.50 to $630. Businesses that already hold a city of Trenton business license are exempted from the obligation.
And Townsend stressed that the rule is not all that new. The Dade County Commission passed an ordinance on Jan. 1, 2015, enacting the business license obligation, after having a first reading of it in December 2014. "No one came and objected to it," said Townsend. "Nobody said a word."
The county made no effort to collect the new tax in 2015, said Townsend; it in fact had no procedure in place yet even to issue a business license. Though the commission had been talking about instituting a business license for years, said Townsend: "I couldn't justify paying for software to create a business license until we had a business license ordinance passed and on the books. So once that happened I started trying to find the right software that fit us."
That process took about a year, he said. Dade ended up purchasing a $9990 software package to generate the licenses and had the system up and running by this February. That's when the commission office began sending out applications to businesses it had identified in the county.
How was that done? Names were gathered through the personal property returns business owners turn in to the Dade County Tax Assessor's office, said Townsend. "Those really are the only ones that we're aware of," he said. "That's another reason for having a business license – we had no way of identifying our businesses."
The county sent out 150 application packets, said Townsend, and so far has had pretty good compliance, with 98 applications turned in. But that number includes people who weren't sent a packet, just wandered in to ask what was needed—"A lot of people come in and say, is that all?" said Townsend—and excludes others who were sent the application but didn't complete it—"Some of those have come back and said, we retired 10 years ago," said the clerk.
Townsend said that the county commission had discussed business licenses for some time as a way to generate income but hadn't thought it would bring in enough to be worthwhile. Then, three years ago, the business license issue arose again as a requirement for counties that wished to impose a hotel-motel tax. "That was the catalyst, I think, that helped bring the business license about," said Townsend.
The matter came up at a series of meetings held by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs and attended by Townsend as well as by a representative from the Dade Chamber of Commerce. "Probably the Chamber of Commerce is the most direct beneficiary of the city's hotel-motel tax," explained Townsend.
Counties must have a business license/occupation tax ordinance on the books for a specified period of time before enacting a hotel-motel tax, and passing the latter requires action by the Georgia Legislature. In fact, says Townsend, the county commission has no plans for instituting a hotel-motel tax at the present time. "They may start working on it this year," he said.
Townsend did not address the scarcity of hotels or motels in the unincorporated county, but he did mention the discussions the commission once had about taxing the cabins at Cloudland Canyon State Park: The commission had learned, he said, that if it did so it must be able to demonstrate it had invested the takings into promoting the park.
But whatever the odds are of Dade instituting a hotel-motel tax any time soon, Townsend says the business license requirement has another useful function. "Hopefully, it protects the consumer, protects the citizens of Dade County," he said. "If there's nothing for these people to fill out, we have no way to certify who these people are."
Suppose someone new to the county gets a contract to build a Dade resident's house and makes a soup of it, said Townsend. "If you have shoddy work provided by someone you don't know, you might not be able to find the person again," he said. "At least if you have a license, they can come here and get that information."
The county literature included with the business license application makes the same point, emphatically, using the example of a door-to-door salesman selling defective vacuum cleaners. "Before this ordinance there was nothing to prevent these type [sic] men and women from soliciting business at your very own front door," warns the handout. "Some of these people may very well be staking out your home to rob you."
Heady stuff, but the handout starts out even more defensively: The business license, it proclaims at the top of page 1: "Has nothing to do with ZONING." (Underlining and capital letters courtesy the handout, not The Planet.)
The ordinance itself (No. 12-04-14) specifies the business license requirement applies to anyone conducting a "business, trade, profession or occupation" with a location in the county or, if out of state, "exerting substantial efforts within the state," including all "peddlers, solicitors and transient merchants."
The business license fee is a yearly tax, renewable Jan. 1 for the next year.
Townsend admits that identifying businesses eligible for the business license/occupation tax from the tax assessor's personal property rolls was not a particulary efficient a way to do it; those who didn't fill out a personal property return will also not get a business license application. "All we can do is say everyone's supposed to comply with the law, so come in and apply for it," he said.
And what if everyone doesn't?
"Anybody that breaks an ordinance, that's the county law, so they'll just have to face the consequences if that's their choice," said Townsend.
What consequences? Townsend thought there was a substantial fine involved, but said such matters were up to the county's code enforcement officer.
The Planet will continue to report on this matter when and if developments develop.