July 05, 2012The next time a city councilmember says they are a supporter of small business, it will be all I can do not to stand up and shout liar, liar, liar. The City of Greensboro would be hard pressed to be more unfriendly to small business.
This is my yearly rant about the Greensboro privilege license, which a business has to buy for the privilege of doing business in the City of Greensboro. Not that businesses don't already pay plenty of taxes to the City of Greensboro, but someone came up with this idea, and cities who hate small businesses add this tax, for which a business gets nothing in return other than a listing on a city website. So if someone should ever be searching around the city website for a list of small businesses, they may or may not be able to find it. But what good that does anyone is a mystery. However, the council voted to put all small businesses up on the website, so they do. As we say in the advertising business, it's like putting a billboard up in the desert; it may look wonderful but no one will see it. The list might be great, but why would anyone go to the city website looking to buy a newspaper ad, get a car repaired or a carpet cleaned?
Imagine for a moment if income taxes were capped so that if you made $50,000 a year or $50 million a year you paid exactly the same amount of tax. Most people would agree that wouldn't be fair. But in this case the privilege license tax can be considered worse. The way the privilege license tax is figured is that the business pays it on its gross revenue. It is a stupid way to pay any tax because gross revenue doesn't mean anything. You gross revenue could be $20 million, yet your profit might not be enough to pay your privilege license tax. Someone else might have gross revenue of $500,000 and have a profit of $400,000.
But the tax for businesses other than video gambling is capped at $1,200. So a small business with revenue of less than $2 million has to pay a percentage of its gross revenue, whereas a big business just pays $1,200, which is nowhere close to the percentage the small businesses pay. It is completely backwards. The small businesses are carrying the freight for the big companies. Any business that has more than about $2.4 million in revenue pays the flat fee of $1,200, while businesses with a gross of less than $2.4 million pay a percentage of their gross. The city could make the percentage of gross tiny if it just charged everyone the same percentage.
Imagine if the city charged everyone the same amount of property tax no matter how valuable their property was. Say each property owner paid $1,200 in property tax no matter how much land they owned or how many parcels of land except for very small property owners who would pay a percent of the property value. Would that make any sense to anyone? But that is how the privilege license works: Small businesses write what for them could be a huge check, and for big businesses it's not even a drop in the bucket. Which business is more likely to have an extra thousand dollars lying around? It isn't the small business that is struggling to deal with all the increased costs of doing business. But I think Lincoln Financial and VF Corp could both come up with $1,200 out of petty cash.
To add insult to injury, the city makes it as difficult as possible to pay. I went over to the new collections area, which is all bulletproof glass, speakers and surveillance cameras, and about as customer friendly as a sand spur.
I walked in and got in line where it said "Collections." It was either that or Police Records, and I was pretty sure I didn't want a police record.
There were eight people in line, or 10 if you count children, and one city employee working. But although the city couldn't afford to man another window on the day the privilege license tax was due, it could afford a security guard to sit behind a bulletproof glass wall and watch.
I waited in line, I won't say patiently, and as the collection agent waited on one person, one or two more would be added to the end of the line. So the line always stayed somewhere around 10 people long. Finally it was almost my turn and the city opened up another window for me. When I handed over the paperwork and the check, I was told I had to go to the Collections Office before I could be helped at the Collections Window. This is evidently something that everyone is supposed to know. Of course you go to the collections office before the collections window. But I didn't know.
A sign would have been very helpful. The city is fond of signs. There were signs all over the place telling people that the city would be closed for business on July 4. Adding one sign that said, "To purchase or renew a Privilege License please go this way," and an arrow, would be so helpful.
Or here is a better idea that is even cheaper than a sign. Take the security guard out from behind his bulletproof glass wall and put him out by the front door directing people to where they need to go. Most of the security guards are really nice people, and I know many of them would prefer to be out talking to people instead of watching them from behind glass.
The response I got from city employees when I complained about the inconvenience is, "We do it the same way every year." No doubt it is just as inconvenient every year, but I don't remember everything I did last year.
When I got inside the Collections Office there was one person waiting on people and another city employee just sitting in his office not waiting on people or doing much of anything. I had plenty of time to watch him while I waited. Then I saw him a few minutes later down the hall and he told someone he was "taking a break." He was taking a break in the hall from taking a break in his office and still there was only one person waiting on people.
On a day like July 2, when privilege license taxes are due, if the city wanted to keep its citizens happy, it would put on more workers or get the workers they have to work more for one day. It won't kill anyone to work for a couple of hours without a break. Having two windows open and two people taking care of licenses would have made all the difference. Mainly it would have made citizens feel like the city was looking out for them rather than treating them like they were an inconvenience to the city.
The only pleasant person I ran into was the woman who actually tallied the bills and, of course, ours was wrong. There is some secret to it that no one who has ever done it for us has figured out. If I was a good reporter I would have written down the nice woman's name, but by that time I was simply trying to get out of the building without attracting the attention of the security guard.
Standing in one line for 10 minutes only be told that I should go stand in another line, so that then I can go back to stand in the first line again, is not my idea of a good afternoon.
It's infuriating that they have a tax that is much more regressive toward small businesses. But if they are going to have such a tax then they should at least make paying it as painless as possible. Even the post office puts on more workers on April 15 when they know they are going to have more business.
Or imagine a retail business that didn't put on any more workers during the Christmas season, or a restaurant who let most of their employees take a break from noon to 2 p.m.
The fortress that they built to protect city employees from having to breathe the same air as the public is intimidating enough, but the uncaring attitude of the city supervisors is too much.
Next year, no doubt the city and I will make exactly the same mistakes, except I'm going to write down the names of everyone who is nice.