Retiring Alderwoman Irene Holcomb ended her nearly quarter-of-a-century as a Pine Bluff City Council member Monday night while presiding as mayor in Mayor Carl A. Redus Jr.’s absence.
Meanwhile, some of her trademark candid comments helped in gaining approval for an ordinance that may put hotel or restaurant tax absconders out of business.
The measure — co-sponsored by Holcomb and Aldermen Bill Brumett and Wayne Easterly — initially met with hesitancy that appeared to be headed toward some united opposition, but statements by the three were strong enough to garner a passing vote.
Of the seven polled votes, Alderwoman Thelma Walker cast the lone nay and Alderman Glen Brown replied, “Present.” The other nods were positive.
“Woo,” Holcomb said. “I thought the chair was going to have to say ‘I’ on that one,” indicating she had thought the tally might have required her tie-breaking decision.
The measure calls for the city collector to revoke or suspend business licences if a firm fails to pay “any taxes as required by ordinance, penalties, interest, tax deposits, attorneys’ fees, court costs fees, excise tax, occupational tax or other tax, license or fee licensee.”
But its chief aim is to better ensure payment to the city of hotel and hamburger tax revenues collected by local hotels, motels and restaurants.
There’s little trouble with hotel or motel proprietors making timely deliveries of their customer tax assessments, but several restaurants and fast-food dealers are traditionally tardy with their turnovers. Brumett had estimated that the city is lacking an estimated $100,000 in undelivered hamburger tax collections, including $60,000 owed by Domino’s Pizza alone.
The measure outlines procedures that could result in revoking of city business licenses, financial penalties, misdemeanor charges, or daily fines of up to $500 on firms that fail to satisfy matters within 30 days of being notified by the city of an infraction.
City Collector Albert Ridgell addressed the council prior to its vote, saying his department seeks to be “business-friendly” on such issues. He said he thought the proposal might need some additional explanation.
Alderman Steven Mays and Brown called for lighter fines and “a little more clarity.”
Brown asked, “How business-friendly can you be with a fine of $500 a day?”
Walker suggested that instead of the ordinance, perhaps the problem could be solved by employing more collectors.
Brumett appeared agitated.
“There’s nothing new about this,” he said, charging “there’s been plenty of time” to ask questions or make input as the ordinance had been read in two previous council sessions.
Easterly termed some of the tax violators as “certain deadbeats” and said they are committing theft “against the city” and its citizens. “This (ordinance) would give Albert and his people authority,” said Easterly. “We can’t as a city continue to sit here and allow people to steal under the name of taxes.”
Alderman George Stepps said he’s concerned that the legislation doesn’t focus on “corporations that will try to get by by leasing to another individual” to avoid tax responsibilities.
Holcomb said when people eat an elephant, it doesn’t matter how big the creature might be.
“You have to eat it bite by bite,” she said.
The ordinance is “a good place to start,” Holcomb said.
Holcomb, who operates Holcomb-Henson Mortuary with her family, spoke about being in business.
“I know by experience” that most small businesses are currently struggling “just like ours.” She added that she’s long believed that “small businesses will bring this city back,” but noted, “My husband and I pay our taxes, and we never pay anything late.”
“If we can pay on time, other people can, too,” she reasoned, saying the tax monies are collected from customers and wouldn’t be “coming out of the businesses’ pockets unless they are unlawfully putting it there.”
After the measure’s adoption, Brumett told his counterparts, “We can work on this as we need to as we go along.”
There was also some controversy on a request for a budget adjustment that the council learned had already been enacted by Redus.
Finance Director Steve Miller told the panel that Redus had employed his “emergency authority” in authorizing the $100,000 adjustment for the troubled parks and recreation department, which was crippled with a shortfall resulting from overspending on summer programs.
Local police are still investigating the matter, which sparked the parks and recreation’s commission’s recent decision to suspend department Director Angela Parker and Community Centers Director Laura Hildreth with pay until the probe is finalized.
Council members seemed surprised that Redus has already approved the adjustment, which included transfers of $80,252 in undesignated funds, $14,739 in Worker’s Compensation monies and $5,009 in departmental wages.
Walker said she would prefer to wait until the investigation is complete before voting on the matter, but Miller said a delay “won’t change what’s been done.”
Brumett and Easterly agreed that the adjustment should be “looked at” in early 2013, but urged its passage “since it’s already been done.”
The vote was unanimous, but Alderman Charles Boyd and Walker were slow in stating their approval.
Miller said without the mayor’s action, the parks and recreation workers would have been “sent home without pay” for the remainder of the year.
Redus’ wife, Trudy Redus, is employed by the department.