Berlin Approves Tougher Business License Penalties

Berlin Approves Tougher Business License Penalties
Berlin Councilman Thom Gulyas sits before the town council during Monday’s discussion of business license penalties. Photo by Charlene Sharpe

BERLIN – Merchants who fail to renew their business licenses will now face stiffer penalties in Berlin.

The Berlin Town Council unanimously approved changes Monday that strengthen the late penalties for business licenses. The changes include increased interest rates and the publishing of the names of businesses who have not paid the $75 annual license fee.

“The challenge we have in the current code is it’s not set at the right rate to motivate folks to pay…,” Town Administrator Laura Allen said. “It does not provide for very strong late penalties nor does it have any teeth in terms of compliance.”

The ordinance under discussion this week would allow the town to increase the business license fee 5% if it’s not paid within 30 days of the date it’s due. The names of the businesses that haven’t paid will also be published at that point.

No payment within 60 days will result in a 12% increase in the fee while no payment within 90 days will result in a 24% increase in the fee. The ordinance also makes nonpayment of the fee punishable as a misdemeanor and reserves the town’s right to transfer the fee and penalties to the business’s water bill if applicable.

The changes have already spurred some merchants to pay overdue fees, as there were 28 unpaid business licenses when the ordinance was introduced and as of Monday there were just 14 licenses that remained unpaid.

“Every now and then you have to make some noise to make people realize that yes we want to be very supportive of everyone in this community, including the business community, but everybody has to chip in,” Mayor Gee Williams said.

Resident Jeff Smith asked why “teeth” hadn’t been added to the code sooner.

“You have no idea what things were like 20 years ago,” Williams said.

Smith said he didn’t care what things were like 20 years ago.

“There’s no teeth in it because it was not acceptable to the people of this town to put teeth in it,” Williams said. “Now we’re saying it has to be. There has to be some recourse or people say ‘hey you don’t have to pay your business license.’”

“Dude I don’t know why you’re yelling at me man,” Smith replied, stressing that he was just asking a simple question.

Williams told Smith he’d received a simple answer.

“No I didn’t, I got a very complex answer with what sounds like a stern lecture from my mayor,” Smith said.

Smith went on to ask if there were mechanisms in the state for the town to forbid someone from operating a business because they didn’t have a business license.

Allen said that was a fascinating question.

“I will tell you we don’t get a lot of communication from the state of Maryland when it comes to business licenses,” she said. “I made a follow-up call to the state requesting a list of businesses in Berlin that do not have current state licenses and was told they were talking to their legal counsel to see if they could give me that answer.”

Williams expressed frustration with the fact that municipalities in Maryland were essentially “on their own” and apologized for being upset.

Smith brought up the issue of operating a business without a license and indicated it was different than the issue of failing to renew a license on time. Councilman Zack Tyndall agreed.

Allen however, maintained the proposed changes referred to businesses that failed to “obtain or renew” a license.

Councilman Thom Gulyas stepped down from his seat on the dais to address officials as a business owner. He said he was concerned that the ordinance didn’t include a clear timeline for penalties.

“Failure to renew a license … is punishable by a misdemeanor,” he said. “At what point will that be enforced?”

He also objected to the idea of publishing violators’ names.

“I’m not big on public shaming anybody,” Gulyas said. “You’re asking for a pint of blood and a pound of flesh. I think we as a society have gotten to the point we public shame too many people. We’ve got to make sure, speaking as a business owner, that we keep this town friendly. That is not going to do any good.”

Councilman Dean Burrell pointed out that it wasn’t business friendly to force staff to continually make phone calls and send invoices.

“If we’re going to be business friendly business has to be friendly to us,” Burrell said. “I think by honoring your obligation to pay this $75 within a timely fashion is just being a good neighbor. If you’re not being a good neighbor there needs to be ramifications. You call it public shaming, I call it motivation.”

Councilman Elroy Brittingham agreed.

“Seventy-five dollars is a drop in the bucket,” he said. “I don’t know why we’re setting up here fussing about $75.”

Gulyas said that if the council did want to publish the names it should be done at 90 days not 30 days. He added that the whole discussion was tied to just $525 in fees that remained unpaid this year.

Tyndall said if Gulyas was going to discuss specifics that had only been provided to the council he should be seated at the dais.

“That’s your opinion and you’re entitled to it, but it’s my opinion as a business owner this is the issue I’m taking…,” Gulyas said, adding that he’d owned a Berlin business for 35 years. “It’s tougher than you think. You can smile all you want but until you’ve made a payroll out of your own pocket for a year and worn several hats like a lot of these folks have it’s difficult. I don’t believe that these folks down here on the bottom of this list are absolutely hiding. Are they the best at bookkeeping, at keeping in touch? More than likely not, otherwise they wouldn’t be on here.”

The council agreed to re-word the proposed ordinance to make it clearer and agreed to adjust it so that businesses without licenses will not be subject to a misdemeanor or the publishing of their names until they are 90 days late.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.