County should treat all businesses equally

info@islandpacket.comJune 4, 2013 

A pair of shrimp boats make their way down the Harbor River in June 2011.

JONATHAN DYER — null

No compelling argument has been made for exempting farmers and fishermen from Beaufort County's business license tax.

That's especially true considering the property tax break they enjoy under state law. Property deemed agricultural, including property owned by people in mariculture, is assessed at its "productive use" rather than market value, which can result in much, much lower property tax bills.

And it doesn't take much to qualify for agricultural use. For timbering, it's just five acres; for other types of farming, it's 10 acres. And you can include smaller parcels if they are contiguous to larger agricultural tracts, or in the case of timbering, under the same "management system."

So do people in this line of work really need to pay no business license fee to stay in operation? County Councilman Paul Sommerville suggests they do.

But Sommerville's idea also raises the question of why the county requires a business license at all.

When the license requirement was put in place in 2000, county officials said they wanted to track businesses and ensure they were located in appropriately zoned areas. That doesn't require much in the way of fees, only signing up, but it has had its problems. The county has offered two rounds of amnesty -- in 2002 and 2006 -- trying to get businesses to come forward and apply for licenses the law says they should have.

The debate over the past decade also has included how much was being charged. The rates are based on gross income and the type of business, with businesses being put into eight different classifications. Rates for businesses based outside the county are double for those located here.

The amount collected has grown. In fiscal year 2005, the county collected $476,457 in business license fees. In fiscal year 2012, it was $1.72 million.

Even still, it was a relatively small portion of the county's $95 million operating budget. If the county wants to give businesses a break, maybe it should revisit the reasons behind charging a business license fee in the first place, as well as the rate structure. The licenses are a good way to track businesses in the unincorporated area and make sure they're not operating where they shouldn't be.

If the fees charged are a problem for farmers and shrimpers, they could be a problem for other types of businesses, too.

Whatever the county does -- or doesn't do -- it should be equitable for all businesses.

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