Business Licence's Real Property Tax 'Tie' Questioned

By NEIL HARTNELL Tribune Business Editor THE Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation's (BCCEC) chairman last night questioned whether it was legal for the Government to link Business Licence renewals to full real property tax compliance, warning this could have "a very significant impact" on already-struggling Bahamian companies. A Ministry of Finance notice, released by Bahamas Information Services (BIS), in warning all Bahamas-based businesses that they had to submit their annual financial results, together with the required Business Licence tax payment, to the Ministry of Finance by end-March 2012, said the renewal was conditional on all outstanding real property tax sums being paid. Telling Tribune Business he was unaware that the Government was linking Business Licence renewals to payment of all outstanding real property taxes, Winston Rolle said that while he understood the need to collect all due taxes, there were questions over whether this practice was backed by statute law. Enforcing it will potentially impact all Bahamas-based companies owning real estate valued at more than $250,000, and already-struggling companies may be hard-pressed in meeting the Government's demands. Given the moribund economy, Mr Rolle questioned the timing of the Government's move, since it could potentially send troubled firms under. In its notice, the Ministry of Finance said: "Businesses are also reminded that, unless arrangement has been made to pay the amounts outstanding, they will only be deemed to be in compliance with the Act, and a Business Tax Compliance Receipt will only be issued, if all taxes due and payable under the Real Property Tax Act have been paid in respect of the property or premises on which the business of the licensee is located, and the applicant is the owner of such property or premises." In response, Mr Rolle told Tribune Business: "The first question that comes to mind is: Is that legal? Unless that's enacted statutorily by some mechanism or another, I don't see how much that grounds that will have. "It is an attempt to get people to be more compliant in meeting their obligations with the Business Licence and Real Property taxes. I could be wrong, but is that a legal option that can be exercised?" The Government has long been challenged with real property tax compliance, especially in detecting non-payers and enforcing payment of due sums, reports by the Auditor-General every year noting a rising $400 million amount that remains uncollected. By linking Business Licence renewals to being current with real property tax payments, the Government is clearly hoping to encourage the business community - who should be among the largest contributors - to become current, and pay up on time. If they fail to do so, they will be unable to obtain a Business Licence fee, and would thus be operating illegally. The BCCEC chairman, though, while acknowledging that it was "a challenge" for the Government to enforce tax compliance, told Tribune Business: "What they're doing, in very difficult times, is that if a person is struggling to meet their financial obligations, and continuing to operate a business is the only means of working out of a negative situation, by tying the Business Licence to real property tax they're hampering their ability to work themselves out of such a situation. "I understand what the intent is, but I don't know is this is a good time to be doing it, given the state of many businesses in the country. It can have a very significant impact on the continued sustainability of some businesses at this stage. Timing is everything. I don't know if now would be the right timing." Mr Rolle acknowledged that the Government had every right to collect all taxes due to it, "but they have to be understanding of businesses that have to pay it, and don't have the ability to do so. "I know some persons refuse to pay real property tax, but a number of people are having a very difficult time in meeting their payments, and this is why they may be reneging on it." Mr Rolle pledged to check with other BCCEC Board members to see what they knew about the situation, and how it was impacting the wider Bahamian private sector. "The first question


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