MANATEE -- With new businesses constantly opening in Manatee County, some residents and other business owners may wonder just how many businesses call Manatee County home.
These residents and business owners are not alone -- Manatee County government has no idea of how many businesses are in unincorporated Manatee County.
But a local business tax, which would be levied on all businesses in the unincorporated portion of the county, would remedy the problem, says Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker.
"We don't even know how many businesses are in Manatee County," Hunzeker said. "There is no way to know. There are so many home-based businesses plus brick and mortar, and it was a way to find out how many businesses and what type of businesses are in our community."
Several years ago, a business tax was proposed but there was pushback so it was never enacted, Hunzeker said. Every city in the county levies a business tax with the exception of Anna Maria, which has in the past but no longer does.
"There were certain people in the community that threatened the elected officials with mounting campaigns against them if they sup
ported the program," Hunzeker said.
The topic of a business tax for Manatee County has returned to the table as the county's Citizens Financial Structure Advisory Board, which is tasked with addressing the county's funding issues, prepares to make a recommendation of revenue streams the county should add.
A local business tax is on that list. But while it is estimated to only generate $400,000 a year, which wouldn't solve the county's funding issues, Hunzeker says it would help in the public safety arena.
"The first responders to an event at a business would like to know what the business is involved in, what type of business is located at the site," he said. "If it was to a fire, before they break down the door, they like to know what is on the other side of the door, and today we don't know."
A business database would be helpful, said Bob Smith, the county's public safety director. For example, a call of a structure fire at a hardware store would be a lot different than one at a medical office.
"It's always better to know what's on the other side of the door," Smith said. "Knowing that thing would definitely impact how we would respond."
While the fire departments in the county have a lot of that information through preplanning, that isn't the necessarily the case for Emergency Medical Services.
"It could look like somebody's house but running an accounting business out of it," Smith said. "There is never such a thing as too much information for the public safety world. Every little bit we can use."
Tax widespread in Fla.
The tax, which would be levied on all business owners annually, would be implemented by the county commission.
More than 50 of the state's 67 counties have a business tax, and more than 350 of the state's 400-plus cities do as well, Hunzeker said.
"They have had it for years," he said. "Their fee structures range from semi-complicated to real complicated."
Since at least the 1970s, Palmetto has had a business license fee, which generates close to $70,000 per year, said Jim Freeman, city clerk.
"It's another revenue stream," Freeman said, adding that the revenue goes into the city's general fund.
In addition to the business tax, which varies by business type and ranges from about $16 per year to $225 per year, Palmetto also has an inspection fee when a new business opens, Freeman said.
With the tax in place, it provides Palmetto with a database of all businesses in the city.
"It does provide useful data as far as types of businesses operating and also the number of businesses and also proximity or location within city limits," Freeman said.
When a business tax was proposed in Manatee County in late 2009, it would have been $35 annual fee, with 100 percent of the revenue going toward economic development and job creation. If Manatee County started to levy the tax today, the proceeds would be used in the unincorporated area to either provide additional services or to reduce other taxes, Hunzeker said.
A few years ago, the state Legislature changed the name to a business tax, after it was called a business license, Hunzeker said.
"It has been around for decades, and those governments that have had it for decades use the proceeds to fund their general government as opposed to raising property taxes," he said.
Need for a database
Historically, the Manatee Chamber of Commerce has endorsed a business license in Manatee County. When the tax was discussed in previous years, the chamber was engaged in those conversations, said Michael Gallen, vice president of public policy and small business at the chamber.
"The funds were supposed to be dedicated to economic development as well as benefits of public safety, disaster preparedness and recovery," he said.
But the board of directors has not taken a position on the matter since then, Gallen said. The Manatee Chamber has more than 2,100 member businesses.
"The chamber would need to evaluate any current proposals and speak to our membership and get their opinion," Gallen said, adding that the chamber hasn't given any sort of opinion or stance on what the cities are doing in regard to their business taxes.
While Manatee County does not have a database of businesses located within unincorporated Manatee County, the county does have a business recovery directory, which was launched in January 2014. The directory, which would help match emergency managers with local business resources in the event of a local emergency, has 780 businesses enrolled to date.
"It is really an opportunity to have a list of companies that could help the community come back after a disaster and use local vendors," said Karen Stewart, the county's economic development program manager. "We are really proud of the enrollment that we currently have, but goal is to have all businesses enroll."
As the financial advisory board continues to tackle ways to address the county's funding issues, it will weigh the different revenue options available to the county. At the last meeting, board members said an infrastructure sales tax and franchise fee are more favorable solutions.
"When we pointed out in December the problem facing the county, this particular revenue won't do much to solve the problem," Hunzeker said of the business tax. "The two they gravitated toward raise enough money to deal with the problem, and this one didn't raise enough money to deal with the problem. Every one of the revenues has a benefit, and the question of who do they benefit."
Claire Aronson, Manatee County reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @Claire_Aronson.