Area bars, restaurants to be audited

BEAUFORT -- Bars and restaurants in Beaufort County soon will be audited after it was discovered a number of businesses -- including a troublesome Burton nightclub -- were issued business licenses despite having never paid the county's 2-percent hospitality tax.

County Administrator Gary Kubic instructed the county's business licensing department this week not to grant restaurants and bars renewals before verifying all fees and hospitality taxes have been paid. Previously, the county conducted random audits.

"The day of atonement has arrived," he said. "We will be going back to check their hospitality taxes and their gross receipts, and if they're found to be in non-compliance ... they will not be issued a new business license. Nothing is automatic anymore."

Kubic did not say he'd move immediately to shut down businesses in arrears on taxes. Such businesses would be given time to pay any overdue balances.

Kubic added the audits would examine only the business' collection history and not the number of times deputies had been called to the location or other factors. Most county business licenses are up for renewal May 31, but county officials don't feel the problem of overdue taxes is large enough to trigger an overload of audits.

Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said he couldn't believe county business licenses were issued or renewed without first ensuring back taxes were paid, most notably at the Studio Seven nightclub in Burton, a location that has been the site of several shootings in the last three years and remains the subject of an ongoing investigation.

The club's business license expires May 31, according to the county.

"Studio Seven hasn't paid a cent of that hospitality tax since the ordinance was created in 2005," Tanner said. "Why were they ever renewed in the first place? How much revenue is the county missing out on?"

In addition to the hospitality tax, businesses pay an annual license fee based on their gross income from the previous year.

Jeanette Roseberry, Beaufort County business license director, said her department is finalizing a list of delinquencies that includes more than 20 county businesses.

Kubic said the technology the county uses to renew business licenses, plus under-staffing in the business license department might have contributed to the failure to identify businesses behind schedule on tax payments.