Macon business fees to get new look

Buried in the back of the city budget Macon officials approved this week is a page that wasn’t there last year: a list of the city’s business license fees.

Most are to be expected: $420 for a beer license, with an extra $70 for draft; $350 to run a pawn shop, $110 for door-to-door sales.

And $787 to sell watches, clocks or jewelry at auction.

Wait. What?

There’s surely a story behind some of the more strange fees on the list, but their origin is long forgotten, city officials say.

“It’s got a lot of vintage in it,” said Amanda Deaton, assistant chief administrative officer for budgeting and strategic planning.

Nobody now holds a license to auction watches, clocks or jewelry, said business license inspector Brandi Daniels. But the $262 fee for dance halls is paid by many businesses, “wherever there’s dancing,” she said.

But why that particular amount? That also may have been set decades ago, for reasons unknown; and a new look at those fees is one reason for including the list in this year’s budget, interim CAO Dale Walker said.

“The question is: Are they appropriate in title and function as well as dollar amount?” he said.

Gauging relevance

The motivation for some recent fees is known, Walker said, like the charge for door-to-door sales. In mid-2011, City Council members Rick Hutto and Elaine Lucas backed an ordinance to require licenses for such salespeople, restricting their times to daylight hours on weekdays and Saturdays. They said they were responding to complaints of harassing and suspicious characters.

In August 2010, a new law went into effect requiring massage parlors and spas to get city business licenses, and requiring all employees to be licensed by the state.

Secretary of State Brian Kemp said it was aimed at cutting prostitution and would allow punishment of the business if it employs unlicensed workers. Macon police said the number of spas dropped from 18 in 2008 to 12 in 2010. Some shut down, while others moved or changed names.

Macon also requires a $150 license for individual massage therapists. Since that was instituted, there haven’t been many applicants, said Tamira Slaughter, city accounts receivable manager.

But the licenses for liquor sales, pawn shops, taxicabs, dance halls and transient businesses, as well as landfill-use privileges, get plenty of takers, she said.

The question is not only whether all those fees are still relevant and whether they match the types of businesses that now exist in Macon, but also whether the fees adequately cover the city’s costs in monitoring and protecting those businesses, Walker said. With this new round of attention, some fee revisions may be presented to City Council, he said.

Walker cited the fees for taxis: $19 for a driver, a $100 permit for vehicle, and fees starting at $500 for companies based on their number of cabs. With cab companies popping up all over and with the corresponding increase in law enforcement and traffic control needs, those fees may get a new look, he said.

“The first step is discovering what we have,” Deaton said.

Policing payment

That’s another set of problems for city officials: catching violators of the business-license laws and collecting what’s due.

Daniels is now the city’s only business license inspector -- although another is starting soon -- and since she can’t visit every business in town, she relies on complaints and tips from residents and other agencies.

“We could get one every day or every other day,” she said. There’s no one type of business that evades license requirements more than others, but any sort of independent contractors and home-based businesses are hardest to catch, Daniels said.

Police can make sure those caught are shut down or buy the appropriate license, Walker said. Until then, it’s often up to other agencies that deal with businesses to call attention to those that may be unlicensed, he said.

“So we can eventually catch you, but can you crop up without our knowing? Probably,” Walker said. “Can you go away without our knowing? Probably.”

“Most definitely,” Deaton added.

Last year then-Councilman Mike Cranford sponsored a new debt collection policy, but in doing so acknowledged that many of the unpaid business license fees were probably assigned to companies that had actually gone under rather than those avoiding payment.

The policy took effect in January, but it took a while to work out details with NCO Financial Systems, the company the city hired to pursue more than $700,000 in old debts, Slaughter said.

She just got back the first report on that effort, focusing on landfill fees, which make up the bulk of the debts. That report, on 12 accounts totaling $111,681.21, illustrates the situation: only three of the firms are considered to be “active debtors;” one customer disputes the bill, one is known to have gone bankrupt and the rest need someone to track them down.

Even clearing that up will be an improvement over former efforts, Walker said.

“We’d send out two letters and then stop,” he said.

To contact writer Jim Gaines call 744-4489.