By DOTTY NIST
“The people who are really important in this are you all,” Steve Jaeger of the Walton County Economic Development Alliance (EDA) told attendees at a public workshop on a proposed Walton County Business Tax Receipt program.
About two dozen people came to the Oct. 30 workshop at the South Walton Annex. Jaeger was among the majority of the participants who provided comments at the meeting. This was the second workshop held on the concept, the first having taken place on Oct. 28 at the Walton County Courthouse.
Gary Demers, now serving as Walton County deputy building official, led the Oct. 30 workshop. Demers explained that the Business Tax Receipt program is more commonly known as a business tax license or occupational license program.
“I think if you look around the area, every county in the Panhandle has this type of a Business Tax Receipt …as well as most of the cities,” he said. Demers explained that Walton County has not previously had such a program.
The city of DeFuniak Springs does require an occupational license for businesses, and the city of Freeport requires nonresidential entities, including businesses, to register and pay a $25 annual administrative fee.
Effort toward a business license program for Walton County, Demers explained, goes back as far as 2002, when the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) asked staff to draft an ordinance that would set up the program. They did so, he continued, and the ordinance “sat for the past 11 years” without being acted on.
In April, Demers told attendees, the current BCC again asked staff to research such a program. As recently as Sept. 24, he recalled, staff again received direction to move forward with their investigations and with workshops to receive input, at which pros and cons of such a program could be discussed.
According to Louis Svehla, Walton County public information manager, prior to the workshops a committee that included representation from the county government and constitutional officers and also the community researched the possibility of a BTR program. A proposed BTR ordinance was developed through that process.
Jaeger was the first person present at the Oct. 30 workshop to comment. He explained that, as director for the EDA, it is his job to bring new investment into Walton County, mainly through means of recruiting businesses. Unlike similar organizations in neighboring counties, Jaeger noted, Walton County’s EDA is on a “shoestring budget” and has a staff of only one person (himself), whereas the neighboring counties have five-person staffs to promote economic development.
The EDA does receive $137,000 per year through the BCC budget and also some funding from the county’s municipalities.
A $50 initial fee is envisioned for the Walton County BTR program, $20 of which would be an administrative fee going to the Walton County Tax Collector’s Office, who would issue the licenses, to cover that office’s costs. Of the $50, $20 would go to Walton County Planning as a processing fee. The remaining $10 would to the county’s general fund to assist with economic development. Yearly renewals are envisioned at $30 and would include the $20 going to the tax collector plus the $10 portion to aid economic development.
Jaeger commented that one benefit to the EDA of the program would be the portion of the payments that would be directed to economic development. He noted that it had not been determined whether the $10 portion would be directed to the EDA—and that it would be the BCC who would decide how that portion could be best used to promote economic development.
The listing of businesses that would be available through the program was pointed out by Jaeger as another benefit of the BTR. He said no such list currently exists, and that if someone asks the EDA who all the plumbers are, for example, “we don’t have any bloody idea.”
Jaeger told the participants that the most important aspect of the effort at hand is what the community thinks about the BTR proposal. He emphasized the importance of questions and identification of any concerns on the matter.
Camile Burlison, director of membership development for the Walton Area Chamber of Commerce also spoke, telling the gathering that the chamber had taken part in the committee effort on behalf of local businesses.
Wayne Dyess, Walton County director of planning and development services, stated that the planning department would be a primary point of contact in connection with the BTR and would have the opportunity to ensure that businesses were in compliance with the Walton County Land Development Code (LDC) and Comprehensive Plan.
Demers relayed comments that had been made to him over the past seven years by the South Walton Fire District (SWFD). He said the SWFD had indicated a desire to identify which businesses are in the county. What may have once been a store selling puppies may become a Chinese restaurant without anyone knowing about the change, Demers said. Firefighters have emphasized the importance of knowing what kind of business is operating in a structure where they are called upon to respond to fires or other emergencies, he explained.
Demers called the BTR “another tool” to deal with businesses operating without meeting insurance or workman’s comp requirements or not paying taxes.
Sammy Sanchez of the SWFD added that firefighter crews often go out without knowledge of internal hazards that may exist in business structures. Without a business license program, he said,” “we don’t know that these places are opening up.”
Opinion on the proposed BTR from other attendees was mixed. Gary Brielmayer, manager of the Sandestin Hilton, said he was in favor of the proposal both personally and from a business standpoint, particularly because it would help firefighters respond better and more safely to emergencies. Brielmayer was also of the opinion that businesses wanting to locate in Walton County, including potential suppliers for the planned Airbus plant in Mobile, would ask for the information that would be collected as part of the BTR program.
Representing the Walton County Small Business Association (WCSBA), Larry Anchors said the group was not necessarily against the proposal but wanted to have input. He read a list of questions for which the WCSBA was seeking answers.
In response to one of the questions, Demers said the $50 fee was “not locked in concrete.” He said the tax collector’s office had studied what their costs would be associated with the BTR and had determined that it would cost them at least $20 per business per year to implement. Demers said the assumption had been made that the planning department’s costs associated with the BTR would be the same for the initial application. The planning department would verify that the location of the business was not in violation of the LDC or comprehensive plan.
The BTR program would be designed to capture, he noted, information on every business operating in Walton County, even those located in other counties and coming into the county to do work.
As proposed, the program would exempt farms and tree farms, along with people owning property who rent their properties, whether on a long or short-term basis, from the requirement to obtain a license. However businesses dealing in the rental of properties that they do not own would be required to obtain a license.
The approval process for the business license would require a building inspection and fire inspection, with “reasonable fees” to be charged for these inspections and those costs not to be part of the yearly BTR fee.
Any change to the type, intensity, or ownership of a business would invalidate the BTR and would trigger the requirement for the business to reapply. The proposed BTR ordinance also states, “The fee to transfer the BTR from one location to another shall be set by resolution of the Board (BCC) and may be subject to additional inspection fees as described above for fire and building.”
Fines ranging from $50 for a first offense to a maximum of $500 for repeat offenses are proposed for violations of the BTR ordinance…..
Read the full story in the Nov. 7, 2013 edition of the Herald Breeze.
By DOTTY NIST