Two firms operating despite apparently revoked licenses

Aisha’s Fish and Chicken at 1106 W. 16th Ave. and SOS Express at 2010 Ridgway Road were still in operation Thursday despite apparently having their municipal business licenses revoked earlier this month for failing to remit hamburger tax revenues to the City of Pine Bluff.

Bob Purvis, who oversees collection of hamburger and hotel sales taxes as director of the city’s advertising and promotions department, “conservatively” estimates the businesses are in combined arrears of up to about $7,400.

Mayor Debe Hollingsworth and senior Alderman Bill Brumett are pushing for the firms’ owners to be given police citations for violating an ordinance declaring that a daily fine of $500 shall be imposed on any person or entity continuing to operate a business after its license has been revoked.

Meanwhile, the two Domino’s Pizza restaurants here are operating despite apparently owing more than a combined $70,000 in taxes, according to Purvis. Purvis says the Dollarway Road location is behind by at least $51,000, while the Olive Street location is figured to owe more than $19,000. Considerations of possible legal steps by the city against the restaurants have stalled, at least temporarily, while authorities are seeking clarifications surrounding a recent sale of one of the locations along with a bankruptcy.

Hollingsworth said the tax money in question should be remitted to the city.

“That’s money that is charged to consumers by the restaurants and hotels, and it’s meant to help finance city operations and improvements, not to go into the pockets of those who own or run the businesses collecting the taxes,” Hollingsworth said. “I don’t know what else to call it but theft. Customers are being robbed at the cash registers and then robbed again when city services have to be trimmed or discontinued because of a lack of the sales tax revenue, which is the city’s basic source of finance.”

The mayor said she “couldn’t care less” if non-conforming merchants are angered by a “campaign to collect the taxpayers’ money.”

Stressing that most merchants here are eager to “do the right thing” and comply with the law by delivering the tax collections to the city in timely fashion, Hollingsworth said those who aren’t “don’t deserve any special treatment.”

“If you or I as individuals or business owners didn’t pay our income taxes, we would eventually be fined or maybe even go to prison,” she said. “The principle here is the same, as far as I’m concerned.”

Brumett agreed.

“Our goal is not to shut anyone down, but businesses must be in compliance,” he said in an e-mail, adding that the revenues help in providing services to the business community.

“Everybody must pay their share,” Brumett said. “It’s amazing how some seem to spend hours trying to find ways to avoid paying, when if they just did the right thing all would be fine.”

In a Tuesday meeting at the civic center, Hollingsworth, Brumett and City Treasurer Greg Gustek were joined by Purvis, City Attorney Althea Hadden-Scott, City Collector Albert Ridgell, Finance Director Steve Miller, Internal Auditor Gina Devers and police Capt. Kelvin Hadley for a discussion on the ordinance’s enforcement procedures.

At Brumett’s request, reporters from The Commercial, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and KATV Channel 7 pledged to withhold information on a plan for police to issue a citation to Aisha’s owner Stanley Walker at his restaurant on Wednesday. Hadley promised to give the reporters advance notice of about three hours on the proposed police arrival at Aisha’s. Additional, related police actions involving other merchants in sales tax arrears were discussed as possibilities.

Early Wednesday, Walker — a son of Alderwoman Thelma Walker — contacted Ridgell to offer a payment settlement. The offer was rejected by Purvis, but the transaction was apparently enough to derail the ticketing intentions. No other police actions were taken. Brumett and Hollingsworth, who had been awaiting police notification along with the media, said they were unaware of the happenings until advised by a Commercial reporter after he had learned of the developments.

Purvis said Stanley Walker’s payment proposal averaged $33.78 a month in collected taxes.

“That would mean that his business was grossing $1,689 a month, and he and his wife and several employees couldn’t afford to live long on that amount,” Purvis said. “Our object is to get the money that is owed to the city, but frankly, I found the offer to be insulting.”

Stanley Walker returned a call for comment late Thursday evening.

“I tried to pay what they said I owed them and they wouldn’t accept it,” Stanley Walker said. “I don’t want to be singled out and don’t want to be harassed. Four hundred people owe taxes, so why are they just after me?”

Meanwhile, a man who identified himself as the SOS Express owner but refused to give his name said late Thursday that he gave Ridgell a check about three weeks ago to cover his debt to the city. The man said he couldn’t remember the payment amount. The man said he wasn’t aware of his business license being revoked and he would pay no more to the city.