Columns » Max Brantley

Make ’em pay

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A little media criticism: TV coverage of the state’s effort to make the Wild River Country water park in North Little Rock pay its taxes often seemed to focus more on whether people would have a place to splash next summer. This story was about money. Your money. The park didn’t remit its sales taxes for last summer’s high season. In 2003, legislation sponsored by Sen. Terry Smith of Hot Springs gave the state Finance and Administration Department more power to go after such tax scofflaws. Failure to pay sales taxes begins a notification process. After three months of non-payment, the state contacts the deadbeats and gives them one last chance. If they don’t pay, the businesses can be padlocked. The law took effect in July. By mid-November, the state was ready to move against the first group identified as being at least three months in arrears. There were 3,800 businesses owing tens of thousands of dollars, but by final warning time, all but about 40 had worked out deals with the state. It was impractical to move instantly against all 40. Why was Wild River singled out? Richard Weiss, the DF&A director, says only Wild River Country of the 40 had failed to respond to every single state attempt at contact. Its gate was padlocked, with TV cameras rolling. Guess what? The padlock soon brought the Canadian owner to town to work out a settlement. Weiss says coverage of that case also prompted deadbeats elsewhere in Arkansas to get with the state about working out payment plans. It is like child support. When deadbeat parents learn they can be sent to jail for nonpayment, it’s amazing how many come up with the overdue cash. Chronic deadbeats tend to be bad actors. The Wild River owner hadn’t paid $10,000 in property taxes or $11,000 in North Little Rock advertising and promotion taxes either. He thought it unfair that County Treasurer Debra Buckner showed up at his feel-good news conference to say, “Wait a minute buster, you owe me money, too.” Wild River deserves no sympathy from law-abiding citizens and no free publicity from TV stations for discount season ticket sales (beware, consumers). Retail operators such as Wild River collect nearly 10 percent on top of receipts in sales taxes and owe another percent or so on the value of their property each year in real estate taxes. The sales taxes are NOT the retailers’ money. It’s the government’s money and it is supposed to pass through to public services. Non-payment of taxes creates the illusion of a hefty profit margin, but it’s only an illusion. It sounds a lot like what an average Joe might consider theft – taking money for yourself that belongs to someone else. All of this is to say two things: 1) It’s good the state is getting tough. Millions are at issue every year. 2) The law could be improved. The state is prohibited by current law from revealing amounts owed by sales tax scofflaws. The law should be amended to allow that information to be made public, as it may be for delinquent property taxes and hamburger taxes. Fear of embarrassment can be a powerful incentive to do right. Some operators are without shame, of course.

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