Most of us are probably familiar with Mark 12:17, “And Jesus answering said to them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. And they marveled at him.” This is a simple admonishment. It begs that we obediently follow both earthly and heavenly laws.
There is, however, another verse that speaks much more directly to a protracted local situation that needs to be resolved. Romans 13:7, “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”
Pine Bluff Mayor Debe Hollingsworth, senior Alderman Bill Brumett, City Treasurer Greg Gustek and other city officials met Tuesday in an effort to initiate more effective collection of the local “hamburger tax” — a sales tax collected at restaurants and hotels.
Last December the city council approved an ordinance that could lead to revocation of occupation licenses — required of businesses that operate within the city limits — should they not render unto the public coffers everything they owe. Because some of these malefactors have doggedly refused to pay the taxes that they have already collected from the public, fines and other penalties have begun to mount.
We applaud Brumett’s characterization that these business owners are “double thieves.”
As he said Tuesday, “They’re collecting sales tax from their customers, who expect and deserve to have their tax dollars turned over to the city to help pay for city services to its residents, but they’re keeping the money themselves and I assume they’re spending it if they are not paying the city. So, they’re stealing from citizens twice.”
It should be noted that the vast majority of business owners dutifully pay what they owe. Unfortunately, there exists a core group of serial offenders who appear content to deprive you of municipal goods and services, all the while charging you for the privilege.
Brumett noted that several restaurants and fast-food dealers are traditionally tardy with their turnovers. Brumett estimated that the city is owed roughly $80,000 just by a couple of pizza restaurants alone.
Returning to the guidance provided in Romans 13:7, we are reminded that it is not just a matter of taxes. When businesses collect, but do not forward the tax revenue, they also dishonor us. They dishonor us by being poor citizens. They dishonor us by expecting that we will continue patronizing their businesses even though that patronage essentially suborns their crimes.
People often wonder why things are as they are in Pine Bluff. Tolerance of tax scofflaws is one reason. By failing to act with celerity, certainty and severity, we send a message that laws only have to be obeyed if you feel like it.
At that point, we don’t have laws. We have well-intended suggestions. Unfortunately, we can’t buy gas for the fire trucks with good intentions. We can’t repair roads and sidewalks with good intentions. We can’t fight other types of crime with just good intentions. In short, when we allow this kind of behavior it not only encourages larger misdeeds, it erodes the whole communal value structure.
Will the fines and taxes that these business owners have accrued fix all our ills? Of course not, but perpetuating and facilitating their crimes only serves to hurt all of us.