Natalie DeFord/staff photo
                                The Mercer Island Chamber of Commerce and surrounding businesses in downtown Mercer Island in late fall.

Natalie DeFord/staff photo The Mercer Island Chamber of Commerce and surrounding businesses in downtown Mercer Island in late fall.

Mixed feelings on new business license process

Mercer Island business owners weigh in.

Community members have different thoughts on how business licenses are handled on Mercer Island.

A switch was made in October from business license applications and renewals being processed at City Hall by city staff to an online system ran by the Washington State Department of Revenue’s Business License System (BLS). That change complies with a requirement of 2017 state engrossed house bill 2005 for cities to administer business licensing through one of two state systems.

When the switch was presented and adopted by the city council at its Oct. 15 meeting, city staff said the new method is easier and more streamlined. But that doesn’t hold true for everyone.

The city also said city the business license fee remains at $30. While that is true of the city portion of the overall cost, there are also additional fees from the state and the company that processes the licenses online

Ross Freeman, city sustainability and communications manager, explained that while the city chose not to change its own license fee, the state Department of Revenue bundled in a one-time $19 fee for new licenses and an annually recurring processing fee of $11 for renewals in order to pay for the BLS program itself.

He said there are also some instances where a business may end up paying more due to date-based proration calculated by BLS to realign the expiration date of a particular license with other state business licensing data, such as a tax registration number issued and maintained by the Dept. of Revenue.

Gatis Roze is a Mercer Island business owner, teacher and author of Wiley published investment book, “Tensile Trading: The Ten Essential Stages Of Stock Market Mastery.” He said he found the new process to be more convoluted.

Having to enter in multiple new passcodes and set up an account on a “poorly designed” website to renew his license this year was much more complicated than the few minutes it previously took to send a check, he said.

He also had another surprise — his bill increased some 56 percent. While last year he spent $30 to renew his license, this year his payment confirmation shows his new total was $47.

“Where are the savings for me as far as time and costs?,” he asked. He said he felt it was unfair to local small business owners and that people were unhappy with the change. “From a business person’s perspective, it’s not easier and it’s 56 percent more expensive.”

During the original presentation, staff also had said they received no complaints regarding the new process.

Freeman has since said there have been 210 new licenses issued as of Dec. 3 and there have been 1,265 renewals as of Dec. 2. There have been a couple calls and emails from folks seeking clarification, but he says there haven’t been complaints.

Mercer Island Chamber of Commerce executive director Laurie Givan said she had not received any feedback, positive or negative. She said she had published the information about the switch in one of the chamber’s newsletters.

“The chamber is happy the city of Mercer Island has moved to online business license registrations because we believe this will streamline some processes for our very busy business owners and allow them to take back some of their time and devote that to running their business,” she said.

But Roze said he knows fellow business owners who do have complaints, they just may not have called the city or the chamber to complain formally. Roze poses that this could be because most business owners are extremely busy running their businesses and don’t have time to call the city and complain, especially if they don’t think it will do any good, he said. Roze is now semi-retired and thinks not everyone has the time that he has to deal with this in their respective situations.

However, there are some Island business owners who disagree with Roze.

“I thought the process (of getting a new business license) was very simple as long as you’re prepared with all of your information,” said Kerry Donner, owner of The Boutique Lounge, which just opened in May. “It was a no brainer. It was very simple.”

She said the way the process aligns with state procedure made perfect sense to her.

She did mention, however, that starting a business on Mercer Island in general is “notoriously difficult.” She explained that there are city codes and requirements that make it challenging to construct on the Island or aim to protect the Island but block some opportunities for new businesses.

“But we’re doing great,” she said of her business.

Freeman said city staff has heard consistently for years that an online option was desired by many business owners. He said the new process is far more convenient, available 24/7, and Mercer Island business licenses now live in the same database as other State of Washington business data.

He also noted that both the city and the state mailed informational letters about the change to all known Mercer Island businesses and conducted related publicity.

“As with any change in procedures, there have been some phone calls seeking clarification, but the city has not received any formal complaints and has received a number of compliments,” Freeman said. “Some business owners have arrived in person, unaware of the change, but were able to apply online immediately using the public computer in the lobby.”

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