Empire editorial: It's our money - these businesses should give it back

Posted: Friday, October 19, 2007

The election on Oct. 2 showed us that Juneau voters can be a giving bunch. We approved a 1 percent sales tax extension - keeping the sales tax total at 5 percent for a few years - for the good of the community. It will help improve schools and fund new city buildings, one nickel at a time.

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It's a decent and minor bit of sacrifice. And it's smart, too, when you count the taxes generated by a million tourists each year.

The only problem is, there are about 8 million nickels missing from city coffers. They are owed by delinquent businesses, who collected money from customers but haven't remitted it to the city.

That sum is not enough to block progress. In fact, with sales tax revenue approaching $40 million a year, the total in unpaid taxes - $400,000 or 8 million nickels - adds up to just 1 percent of the total.

One percent? That's a familiar number. We just voted to extend our sales tax by 1 percent - maybe that will cover the 1 percent of revenues that businesses have neglected to pay up. At least for that one step backward, we took one forward.

The city of Juneau has run advertisements in the Juneau Empire naming scores of businesses that owed sales taxes, failed to comply with repayment plans or simply didn't file taxes. As of last month, about 60 businesses owed almost $300,000. Another 13 businesses owed more than $100,000 despite already setting up a repayment plan in court.

Another 160 businesses simply failed to file sales tax returns. We have no idea how much money they have stripped from us, our children and our visitors.

We don't have enough space to name all of them, so we'll just say the list includes trinket shops, restaurants, retail stores, housekeepers, massage therapists, a bank, charter fishermen, hair dressers and so many more.

We're sure there are some heart-breaking excuses for failing to remit. We expect the city and courts will hear about illness, financial strife, unbeatable competition, bad luck, forgetfulness, computer breakdowns and more. We believe most business owners are honorable and sufficiently civic-minded to want to make good.

In fact, some of the businesses may have paid back everything in the weeks since the ad ran, according to Juneau Sales Tax Administrator Joan Roomsburg. And many people will pay up at the last minute to avoid being named, though the city already sends them three notices before publication.

Apparently the business owners don't like being singled out in an ad.

Who can blame them? If we were withholding other people's money, we'd feel uncomfortable as well. A little humiliation goes a long way.

But an embarrassing blurb in a newspaper is just one of many inconvenient steps the city can take. The list of shame is released each quarter. The next options for the city include small-claims action in court or criminal charges.

"We treat this seriously, and we're aggressive with it," Roomsburg said.

These businesses stripped their customers of $400,000 on behalf of the city - then neglected to fork it over. It's our money. These businesses should give it back.

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