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Columbia Business Monthly

Standardizing business license practices makes doing business in cities easier

Feb 04, 2019 11:05AM ● By Kathleen Maris
By Reba Hull Campbell

Businesses locate in cities because that’s where commercial activity is concentrated. These businesses and their customers depend on the services cities provide, which include police and fire protection, zoning, street lights, sidewalks, and many others that can't be billed on an individual usage basis.

Through a business license tax, businesses help pay for the city services on which they depend to operate successfully. 

City leaders have little flexibility in raising revenue because of Act 388's millage and reassessment caps and restrictions on the use of other revenue sources such as hospitality and accommodations taxes. This is in addition to the shrinking allocation from the Local Government Fund.

In most cities, 25 to 50 percent of their general fund budgets come from the business license tax, and there is no alternative revenue stream to replace it. 

Standardizing business licensing practices
For more than 30 years, the Municipal Association has developed and shared common practices for cities to help them administer their business license tax in a fair and equitable manner.

In 2007, the association made available to cities a rate class schedule that establishes a common rate structure based on the North American Industrial Classification System and Internal Revenue Service statistics. The schedule is part of a model business license ordinance the Municipal Association makes available to all cities to help standardized processes across the state. The association updates the rate schedule annually when new statistics are available from the IRS.

The Municipal Association’s Business License Handbook outlines the proper application and collection of the tax. City business licensing officials receive substantial training about professional best practices from the S.C. Business Licensing Officials Association. In 2014, the association established a standardized business license application specifically tailored to the needs of transient businesses, or those that do work in multiple jurisdictions.

Frequently Asked Questions about business license standardization
What is the model business license ordinance?
The model business license ordinance, developed by the Municipal Association, outlines language cities can use to ensure their business license ordinances comply with state law and other best practices of business licensing.

The model ordinance uses the North American Industry Classification System to place businesses into proper classifications according to their profitability using IRS data. The association updates these classes when the IRS updates the data to ensure cities have the most current information in their ordinances.

How is standardizing business license practices and adopting the model ordinance among all cities making the renewal process easier for businesses?
Standardization is an important step in helping to maintain this important revenue source for cities and towns.

Businesses with locations in multiple jurisdictions have a sometimes frustrating task: tracking the varying due dates for license renewals and rate class schedules. Municipalities and counties can adopt the Municipal Association’s model business license ordinance and other standard practices to reduce confusion for businesses. These standard practices illustrate to businesses around this state that the goal of municipalities and counties is to be more business-friendly.

What are cities doing to standardize their business license renewal practices right now?
The Municipal Association  is currently working with cities that haven’t adopted the model business license ordinance to give them the assistance they need to transition to using it as soon as possible. This standardizes license periods and due dates, which further streamlines licensing for businesses.

All cities can offer the standardized renewal application to businesses. Cities should encourage business owners or operators who do business in multiple cities and towns to use the standardized business license application, which helps avoid the hassle of filling out a different application for every jurisdiction where the business operates.

Business License Standardization Checklist
  • Accept the standardized business license application
  • Adopt the most current model business license ordinance with the standard seven classes 
  • Adopt calculating the tax based on the business’ prior calendar year
  • Adopt the standard license year due dates and penalty dates:
    - May 1 - April 30: License Year
    - April 30: Due Date
    - May 1: Penalty Date