Business licenses put heat on county

Meanwhile, some residents say they've seen firsthand how business license rules go unenforced in DeKalb —- until someone complains.

People in Beverly Woods grew suspicious last spring when a new business moved into their neighborhood near DeKalb-Peachtree Airport. A neighbor who spoke with the new proprietor spotted comforters scattered across the floor where there had once been desks for a small publishing office.

Melissa Slaughter told her neighbors that the building now housed a parlor that offered hot stone massage. That didn't sit well with the neighbors, especially the parents. They contacted the county's business license office and learned that the new company was permitted only to design Web sites.

"There's just no follow-up," Slaughter said. She said the neighbors contacted their local patrolman. Then, on April 1, records show, a code enforcement officer ordered the operator to get a proper business permit, but Slaughter said the parlor shut down after that.

The incident is anecdotal, but another, more systematic, observer has said DeKalb could do a better job monitoring businesses. Consultant e2 Assure reported last year that the county was losing between $5 million and $7 million a year in unpaid license fees due in part to a lack of enforcement.

The business license unit reports to Finance Director Mike Bell. He said the massage parlor paid for a Web site business permit, and noted that the application was signed under oath by the owner. If the owner misrepresented the business, Bell said, it was a police matter, not a business license enforcement issue.

He said the unit audits businesses to ensure they're paying what they owe. He wouldn't comment about the consultant's report, but in April, he sent county officials a memo that said the report was flawed, in part, because it based revenue expectations on comparisons with other counties but failed to consider DeKalb's relatively low license fees.

Bell claimed in his memo that the consultant was making "shocking statements" about lost revenue in order to win a county contract to seek any uncollected money.

The same consultant asserted last year that tens of millions of dollars in traffic fines had gone uncollected by the DeKalb Recorder's Court. Last week, following indictments in an alleged ticket-fixing scam at the court, county CEO Burrell Ellis reacted to the report, announcing plans to go after as much as $20 million in court fines that the report said had gone uncollected.

Ellis said nothing, though, about e2 Assure's business license findings. Ellis' transition committee recommended in December that he secure a review of the licensing operation, and soon after taking office, he pledged to investigate. But Ellis' spokeswoman Shelia Edwards said the issue was unresolved. She added, however, that the alleged business licensing losses were still a priority for Ellis.

"That's one of the things we have to look at —- whether the substance of that report is true," Edwards said.

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