The Upson County Board of Commissioners may be opening a can of worms as they try to decide what, if any, penalty a business which has not paid its business license/occupation tax should have to pay to get up to date. The biggest issue may be clarifying that it is an occupation tax and not a business license.
Building and Zoning Director Doug Currier brought the matter up to the BOC at their work session on October 6. Commissioner Steve Hudson and County Manager Jim Wheeless were absent.
Currier stated there are 320 businesses in unincorporated Upson County that regularly pay their occupation tax/business license. But, he estimated, there are more than 100 more businesses in the county that have not paid their tax/license, with some possibly being delinquent as far back as 1982, when the occupation tax was approved.
Currier said the problem has been that when a business owner came in and filled out a form for the tax/license, there was a slip attached to the form that the county would send out the next year as a reminder that it was time to pay the tax/license again. But if the business owner did not come in, there was no reminder to send out the next year. Currier added that past code enforcement officers in the county have also not been as diligent as the current officer in finding businesses that have not paid, and the number has grown over the years.
Currier said the current code enforcement officer has found some businesses that have not paid, and others have come in voluntarily, and that they have 10-12 businesses trying to catch on penalties for having missed their yearly fees.
Upson County bases its occupation tax/business license fee on the size of the business, said Currier.
“You base your businesses on the number of employees. That’s why so many businesses, which only have 10 or fewer employees, only pay the minimum, which is $70, because they are that size. And yes, we rely on businesses to be honest about the number of employees, but the number of businesses that have more than 10 employees are maybe a dozen. Most of our businesses are ‘mom and pop,’ maybe they have two or three crew people if they are a lawn service.”
Currier said the penalty for a late payment is an initial $7, then 1 percent a month up to 12 months. For a business a year late in paying, the penalty would be $16.24, but for some businesses that have not paid in a number of years, those penalties could run into the thousands of dollars. He said there is currently not a statute of limitations on the tax/license.
County Attorney Paschal English added that there are code sections in county law that specify time periods, but none apply directly to an occupation tax.
“There is a code section that says three years, there is a code section that says four years, and there’s a code section that says seven years,” English said. “So it is kind of up in the air as to what the true statute of limitations is in regards to occupation tax.”
The commissioners agreed that since the county’s flawed system of record keeping and notification was part of the problem, that they should limit the number of years a business could be penalized, but they could not come to a concensus on the number of years.
What it is called
English and Currier brought up another concern, that of calling the occupation tax a business license, and the confusion that may be causing.
“I know it is on the books as an occupation tax, but even those of us up here, when we’re talking about business taxes, how many of us knew that business taxes or business license were the occupation tax?” English asked. “The fact of the matter is, out of 10 people you stop out on the street that have businesses, I dare say probably not many would know that the business license is the occupation tax. That is something that kind of concerns me from a legal standpoint.”
Currier added that he is trying to get away from calling the occupation tax a business license because of the connotation it may have.
“The reason why I have tried to get closer to the state statute language here, as other places have in the state of Georgia, is because it is a little bit of misinformation,” Currier explained. “Someone can say, ‘I’m now licensed to do this.’ We’ve had people who say ‘I’m now a licensed roofer.’ Well no, you’re not. We’re not endorsing you as a roofer and saying Upson County has now licensed you. But there are businesses that represent that as a license, and I think that is not good for the public.
“In our ordinance and state law, it is actually called the occupation tax. Let’s call it what it is and be honest about it. It is an occupation tax. It is to generate revenue. The state uses the occupation tax to check immigration status of the workers. We also use it to enforce your property taxes. You’ve adopted an ordinance in the past that says you can’t pay your occupation tax and get your certificate until we have proof that you’ve paid your property taxes. We do enforce that in my office, and we have people who don’t pay up on time because they’re trying to find the money to pay their property taxes. So we’ve attached some things to the occupation tax that levy or help us do some other things better.”
Currier also brought up two other issues in dealing with the occupation tax. One is the rental home business.
“Other counties give an exemption for one or two homes, but right now, we treat that, whether it be one house or 50, as a rental business, and you pay. There has been a request that we start at three residential units. If you’re only renting out one or two units, that it not be considered a business. Once they get the third unit, then they are considered a business and would pay the tax.”
The other issue deals with who is in charge of enforcing the occupation tax.
“It actually says that the enforcing official is a building official,” Currier noted. “My suggestion is that you say the county manager or his or her designee is in charge. That way, if the person in the office changes, it is still clear who is in charge of enforcing this.”
Commissioner Frank Spraggins stated this is not something that should be decided on at the spur of the moment in a work session. The other commissioners agreed and the subject was tabled for further discussion at a later date.
Larry Stanford may be reached at 706-647-5414 or on Twitter @LarryStanford7.