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City license proposal on hold

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Council tables measure for further consideration

By Jesef Williams

Dean Faile wanted Lancaster City Council to think about perception.

He listed a few notable politicians and celebrities, and asked council members to marinate on the first thoughts that come to mind. President Barack Obama, former Sen. Jim DeMint and Tiger Woods were among the names.

Faile, president of the Lancaster County Chamber of Commerce, then asked council to think about the city of Lancaster’s perception. He said community pride is in the forefront.

“I also think business-friendly comes to mind,” Faile said during the public-comment portion of City Council’s meeting Tuesday, March 12.

Faile believes if council chooses to amend an existing ordinance regarding business license inspections, the city’s perception may become that of unfriendly.

The local Chamber of Commerce president was one of six people who spoke during public comment – each expressing opposition to the ordinance, which would require businesses to submit portions of their federal and state income tax returns to the city.

City staff say the requirement would help ensure the city is receiving the appropriate license fees from businesses located in the city limits. Presently, the city relies on statements of gross receipts.

Later Tuesday, Council  unanimously voted to table final reading of the ordinance.

‘Long road’ 

Speaking on behalf of the chamber, Faile said the proposed ordinance would require businesses to provide potentially sensitive and confidential information and would create additional work and expense for businesses to comply with the requirement.

That, in turn, creates a perception of a business-unfriendly municipality, Faile said.

“Once the perception is changed, it’s a long road to recovery,” he said.

Ken Davis, a local public accountant, said the city shouldn’t ask businesses to provide “unnecessary paperwork.” He believes a survey should have been issued before council first took action on the matter last month.

He added that if a business owner wants to be dishonest, he or she will do so – regardless of what information and documentation is required.

“If he’s going to cheat, he’s going to cheat on the form and cheat on the tax return,” Davis said.

“Enforce what you have before putting something else on the books,” he said. “You need to do a 180 (degree turn) and run the other way.”

Sandy McGarry, Lancaster County Republican Party chairwoman, also spoke. She shared the party’s resolution that denounces the proposal.

The resolution says the ordinance is an “unnecessary paperwork mandate” and a “tax increase in disguise.”

Local businessman Travis Snipes referenced last year’s statewide data breach, which exposed sensitive taxpayer information.

“What makes you think the city of Lancaster can do a better job than what the state and Department of Revenue did?” Snipes asked City Council.

‘Not a new thing’

Later during the meeting, Teresa Meeks, the city’s support services director, gave a slide-show presentation that clarified the city’s reason for wanting to amend the ordinance.

She said the city currently has the power to audit businesses and review tax returns, but hasn’t been doing that largely due to being short-staffed.

“What we’re proposing is not a new thing,” Meeks told the audience. “We’ve had the ability to do this all along.”

Meeks said the only change would be the city’s requirement of businesses to submit their tax returns. She adds that city staff are “only interested in the income portion.” The information sought would be the name, federal identification number (or Social Security number), gross receipts and signature – information Meeks said the city already keeps on file for businesses. 

She said this method would not change the way business license fees are calculated.

“We’re only trying to verify what businesses give us,” Meeks said. “We never went into this saying we want to get more money.”

After Meeks’ presentation, Councilwoman Sara Eddins motioned to table the ordinance to give council time to seeks legal advice and consider the public’s comments. There was no discussion by council members on the issue during open session.

Council later met in closed session to discuss what was listed on the meeting agenda as personnel matters.

 

Contact reporter Jesef Williams at (803) 283-1152