City officials focus on details of hamburger tax collections

Several elected officials met with a group of city administrators Wednesday afternoon for a discussion on managing and collecting Pine Bluff’s 2-percent hamburger tax and dealing with merchants who are delinquent in delivering their businesses’ levies or determined to be out of compliance with other city requirements.

Senior Alderman Bill Brumett, chairman of the Pine Bluff City Council’s Ways and Means committee, said the session was designed to help “clear up” enforcement processes, which can lead to revocation or denial of occupation licenses.

The council in December approved an ordinance directing that once a license is revoked for non-payment of taxes, any person or entity continuing to operate the business in question “shall be fined $500 for each day.”

Also, whenever the renewal of an occupation license is requested, the applicant must provide documentation from the city collector that all local taxes, fees and penalties have been paid. A renewal won’t be issued without a clearance letter from the collector. All fines and court costs associated with violations of the law must be satisfied in full or brought up-to-date in a documented payment plan under the authority of the city’s advertising and promotions director, who oversees the procedures.

Violations are considered as misdemeanor offenses, and the police department or code enforcement officers are empowered to issue citations.

Joining Brumett for Tuesday’s discussion were fellow ways and means panelist Alderwoman Thelma Walker, Aldermen Lloyd Holcomb Jr. and George Stepps, Collector Albert Ridgell, Treasurer Greg Gustek, Interim Police Chief Jeff Hubanks, City Attorney Althea Hadden-Scott, Advertising and Promotions Director Bob Purvis, Finance Director Steve Miller, Internal Auditor Gina Devers, Human Resources Director Vickie Conaway and Special Projects Coordinator Lanette Frazier.

Stepps and Walker expressed some concerns on incidental interpretations of the city’s legislation. Purvis responded by explaining the state’s transfer of liability law.

“People try to play shell games,” Purvis said, stressing the importance of the city practicing due diligence in its actions on tax matters.

Purvis said he is the city’s legal agent in dealing with tax-delinquent firms, deciding which merchants will have their occupation licenses revoked or renewed. Delinquent businesses are to be warned of the possible loss of their licenses through collection notices mailed by Purvis after 30, 60 and 90 consecutive days of non-payment.

Ridgell’s job duties include receiving tax money, relating payment data to Purvis and signing the notices to be distributed by Purvis via registered mail.

After a determination is made that a business is apparently operating illegally, the police will issue a ticket, but the business will not be required to immediately shut its doors. The citation will include a municipal court date. A judge will then make a ruling on the matter, and if the offending business is ordered to close but does not, the city will advance the matter to circuit court to seek its closure. No physical arrests will be involved.

Hubanks said police will exercise probable cause and due diligence.

Ridgell, fired by Mayor Debe Hollingsworth in July but reinstated with a council override last month, seemed irritated by a side conversation involving Devers and Miller during a discussion on problems encountered by Ridgell concerning a computer system employed by the city. As Devers and Miller spoke softly, Ridgell turned his attention to the pair and asked if they had something to share with the entire group.

Miller — who had earlier raised a point on Ridgell not having discretion in issuing occupation licenses — proceeded to relate some concerns he has with the performance of Ridgell and his staff with the replacement computer program. Earlier, Brumett rated the collector’s office as “one of the most Important” in the city, but Miller later noted that only about 10 percent of the city’s revenue is obtained there.

Brumett asked about the status of an effort to enact an online process for payment of back taxes and occupation fees as well as other city assessments, and Gustek said a streamlined procedure is needed “for the city to get its money faster.” Ridgell agreed that the city is behind in its online capabilities.