Magistrates start process to do away with business, booze licenses

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By Ben Carlson

Those thinking about purchasing a county business license might want to hold off a few weeks.
During its meeting last Tuesday, the Anderson County Fiscal Court took the first step in eliminating that license and others to become what Judge-Executive John Wayne Conway calls more “business friendly.”
Magistrates unanimously approved a motion to have County Attorney Bobbi Jo Lewis draft an ordinance that would take off the books a license based on the number of people a business employs, as well as one required for stores that sell beer and liquor.
Once drafted, the ordinance would need two readings in separate fiscal court meetings and a majority vote of magistrates, meaning it won’t like be approved until late March, and won’t actually take effect until the end of June when business licenses are traditionally due.
The business license requirement generates around $70,000 in revenue to the county. Conway has said he’s comfortable taking that revenue off the books.
Last Tuesday marked a continuation of a discussion to kill those licenses, which were derided by Magistrate David Ruggles as an unnecessary burden on local businesses.
“I’ve always been opposed to [these taxes],” Ruggles said. “I don’t understand the logic of taxing someone just because they own a business. This is just another way to raise revenue and it’s one less tax people should be paying.
“They already have to pay ridiculous taxes to the state.”
Ruggles, who chairs the court’s finance committee, said the county can do without the money for the time being and that the revenue would be made up down the road when property values recover and provide more real estate tax revenue.
The debate over business licenses came to a head several months ago, primarily over how to fairly enforce it with no full-time enforcement office. It is currently enforced by code enforcement officer Doug Ingram, who said a sweep he performed several months ago showed that roughly 40 percent of businesses he checked on US 127 Bypass had no county license.
Magistrates also heard numerous complaints from business owners who were unaware the requirement existed, then forced to pay hefty fines for not having one.
Ruggles said he also wants to do away with the liquor and beer license requirement, which hasn’t been enforced since it was created in the early 1980s and requires $100 for businesses that sell packaged beer and $400 for those that sell liquor. Since 2010, only one retailer has purchased a license of the dozens that, by law, should.
Ruggles said while business licenses were obviously created to generate revenue, the beer and liquor license was not.
“That was a moral thing,” Ruggles said. “A lot of people wanted to penalize them for going to buy beer and wine somewhere, which is another reason I wouldn’t vote for that because I don’t think we should legislate morality.”
Magistrate Forest Dale Stevens questioned doing away with the liquor and beer licenses, saying that it might be the only way to get tax revenue from people he says don’t otherwise pay.
“You stop at these stores that sell beer and they’re owned by foreigners who don’t pay taxes, anyway,” Stevens said.
“So you want to tax people because they’re immigrants?” Ruggles asked.
Stevens said no, adding that he is talking about not taxing what he called “local people.”
“I’m not going to pick and choose if they’re Pakistan, Muslim or Indian … it doesn’t work that way in my world. I want to get rid of all of [these taxes].”
Ruggles said he’s heard arguments from local businesses that keeping the license requirement helps protect them from outsiders.
“That’s restraint of trade,” Ruggles said. “Let the free market dictate who people do business with. It doesn’t matter if they’re local or come from Timbuktu.”