Hall County is reviewing a number of proposed changes to its business license code to streamline the collection of fees and have its budget better reflect the revenues due.
But debate remains about just how to tweak the code to make businesses more compliant and ensure they don’t fall through the cracks.
The most significant of proposed code revisions, which businesses will see impact their bottom line first, include changes to the late fee grace period for renewing licenses and the number of days allowed for a new business to operate without a license.
The current code establishes a 90-day grace period for businesses to renew their license before a 10 percent penalty, and interest of 1 percent per month, is levied. Officials want to restrict the late period to 31 days, making license renewals due at the end of January each year.
“The biggest reason needed for the change … is trying to tighten up the (late fee period) and bringing that more consistent with other fines,” Commissioner Jeff Stowe said.
Business license fees are calculated based on the number of employees and the specific type of commercial operation. The fees, therefore, can vary widely, beginning at $116 and rising to thousands of dollars. Licenses must be renewed annually.
“That fee can be adjusted accordingly, either up or down,” based on changes to employment numbers, said Business License Director Susan Rector.
The calculation for licensing fees has not changed since 2004. However, there seems to be little appetite among the Board of Commissioners to raise fees out of concerns that doing so would be restrictive and inhibit business growth.
Meanwhile, officials expressed concern that outstanding fees can impact the general fund, where the money flows directly.
“It can make a significant difference in how (the Board of Commissioners) decides ... as far as the budget for next year,” Rector said.
Officials said measures are in place to ensure compliance, but obstacles always stand in the way.
“You’re going to have certain situations where people do not come in and renew,” County Administrator Randy Knighton said.
Meanwhile, officials want to close a loophole that allows businesses to open shop without first obtaining a license. The current code provides for a 30-day grace period, essentially granting businesses permission to begin operating once they have received a certificate of occupancy.
“People assume having a (certificate of occupancy) means they are ready to go,” Rector said.
This false impression has created problems for the licensing department, where notification about what permits and licenses have been issued to a particular business is sometimes not communicated among officials. Commissioners said they hope to rectify this gap.
The initial proposed change would have required new businesses to obtain a license within five days of opening, but commissioners said they even want that grace period to disappear. Instead, it is important that new businesses be licensed prior to operating, they said.
“I think the commission agreed with me — there really ought to be a zero tolerance,” Stowe said. “If you’re open, you ought to have a business license at your facility showing that you are legal to operate in Hall County.”
Other proposed changes being reviewed include increasing fees for criminal background checks, bumping the price to $20 from $15.
To prevent changes in ownership as a way to maneuver around violations and penalties imposed on businesses, the county seeks to require commercial enterprises to show proof of a lease or deed to the property in the business owner’s name while applying for a license.
If approved, businesses would be required to notify the licensing department of its relocation within 30 days, and apply for a new license for the new location. According to staff reports, “failure to do so may result in citations being issued for improper zoning or building codes.”
Finally, according to county staff reports, “It is becoming increasingly common for a business owner to conduct his/her business from someone else’s residence.”
Requiring proof of a valid ID would act as a secondary verification of compliance.
No specific timetable has been set for commissioners to vote on the proposed changes, though officials said it would likely come up in the next month or so.