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Business license crackdown raises cash, ire
"Don't shoot me - I'm only the messenger."

Jeremiah Pons, the city's new Business License Enforcement Officer, quotes that famous phrase often.

Hired on May 23 to ensure that Ceres businesses are up to date on their business licenses and submitting quarterly gross receipts reports for mill tax purposes, Pons is often as unwelcome at businesses as ants are at a picnic.

"I tell people that I'm just paid to do a job," said Pons, a 27-year-old former high school football player who stands six foot tall.

As of last week, Pons had visited 115 businesses and collected $23,405.22 for the city Finance Department. Of that amount, $18,745.22 was in the form of business license revenues (including mill tax).

"I've already generated enough revenue to pay for my position," said Pons.

Working on a five-hour day during weekdays, he makes calls on businesses where licenses have expired or randomly checks to see if the business has a permit at all.

"Twelve of the 115 never had a license," said Pons, most of those being beauty operators who rent out stations to hair dressers.

He also found that big name chains like Staples and Verizon Wireless were doing business in Ceres without a business license, which costs $65 for the initial application and first year, and $35 for each annual renewal. Each license expires on March 31 regardless what month it was obtained.

All businesses are required to report their sales receipts each quarter to the city for the purpose of mill taxes. The rate of taxation ranges from 0.001 percent (for retailers) to 0.002 percent (for service providers) of gross receipts. Some businesses pay a minimum quarterly tax of $30 but large retailers like Wal-Mart or Home Depot pay a mill tax of around $5,000 a quarter.

Businesses are given 35 days from the end of each quarter to pay the mill tax. It's estimated that 700 Ceres businesses "have issues with business licenses," said Pons, "so I've barely scratched the surface. Some cases of neglected reports or payment of receipts goes back to 2004.

It's the administrative citation - with its $100 fine - for being out of compliance that brings out the most ire of business owners.

"It's their responsibility to get a license," said Pons.

A total of 86 businesses have been zinged with citations for not having a business license. The business is given three days to pay for a license and fine or face a $250 for a second citation on a follow-up visit. Ten second citations have been issued, including a Central Avenue barber shop for failing to square things away with City Hall.

Nobody has received a third citation, which carries a $500 fine.

Pons said the majority of business owners are understanding. Some get irate.

"I've had four get very belligerent towards me, even to the point where one told me he never wants to see me step foot inside his business again. Which is kind of funny because I have the authorization to go in there."

Pons was kicked off of a Mitchell Road auto dealer lot.

"He was not a happy camper," said Pons, who wants to get a bulletproof vest for his own protection.

"Unfortunately I'm the bad guy. I'm just the messenger. I'm just doing my job. People try to get mad at me but I try to explain to them I'm just enforcing the city municipal code. The majority of them understand."

Finance Department's Olga Mendoza, the revenue and customer service supervisor, said a majority of businesses call and say things like "I was delinquent and I should have contacted you the first time."

Sometimes City Hall does make mistakes. On Thursday Pons made a second trip to a business in the industrial park which he cited the week before for having an expired business license. The Finance Department told Pons they had not squared away business license matters. Pons issued a second $250 fine, which prompted the owner to tell him "F--- the city of Ceres."

The owner immediately went down to City Hall and straightened the matter out. Pons said the second citation will likely be dismissed.