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Licensing departments are taking care of business

In years past, when a business owner wanted to open shop in the City of Columbia, he filled out a clearance form and was responsible for setting up inspections and getting approval from departments such as zoning, building and fire inspection. These days, Columbia has an automated process through the business licensing department that takes the burden off the business owner.

When an individual comes in to apply for a business license, all of his information is keyed into a computer. Appointments are set up for the required city departments. Business licensing officials can easily access and track the process of applications.

"It keeps everything on track," said Columbia Business License Administrator Roger Myers. "It gets the businesses up and running faster."

Small businesses provide vital jobs and economic development that keep local economies strong and healthy. Like Columbia, a number of municipalities have taken steps to make their business licensing and permitting process easier in an effort to be more welcoming and attractive to businesses.

The City of Greenville made some changes in 2012 as part of a plan to encourage new businesses to locate in Greenville and to retain current businesses, according to Revenue Administrator Jodie Dudash.

First, Greenville officials updated their business license ordinance to make it easier to understand. They condensed their 22 business license rate categories down to 15 and applied a declining rate schedule to the categories. Also, they provided a 2 percent discount annually for businesses that renewed their license before the end of January.

 

Greenville business license webpage 

 

The city of Greenville created anniversary discounts as a way to recognize businesses that already have invested in the community.

 

They also created anniversary discounts as a way to recognize businesses that already have invested in the community, Dudash said. After a business has been in existence for 10 years, it can receive a 5 percent discount on calculated business license tax remittance for that year. After 15 years, the discount goes to 7.5 percent; after 20 years and every five years thereafter, the discount is 10 percent.

"Businesses are what make our cities thrive and grow," said Greenville City Councilmember Jil Littlejohn, who spoke about the city's efforts as part of a panel in November at the National League of Cities" annual conference. "It's very important for municipalities to make the business licensing process as simple and accessible as possible."

Other municipalities are taking their own steps.

The Town of Lexington has a Business and Development Services Center, which serves as the department for building/zoning, business licensing, engineering and economic development, according to Town Accountant Sonya Lee. Administrative assistants and customer service personnel are the initial point of contact for anyone needing a permit, business license or engineering review. 

These employees begin the permit and business license paperwork and walk it through the process so customers don't have to go from department to department, Lee said. It's a sort of "concierge service" for customers, she said. Once the approvals are complete, the city staff contacts the customer to sign the final paperwork and pay the fees.

Lexington also recently added a dedicated phone line for contractors to set up inspections. Before, contractors would sometimes leave messages for two or three different inspectors, creating confusion and duplicating work. Now there is one separate phone line for inspection purposes only which is checked by inspectors each day, Lee said.

Like Lexington, the City of Anderson also consolidated offices into one building for a "one-stop shop," according to Business License/Risk Management Administrator Ken Mullinax. Having the business license, building and codes, and planning departments in one location saves time and makes the process smoother.

A few years ago, officials in the City of Sumter were concerned that the clearance approval process for a new business was too long, showed a lack of personal attention, and did not include adequate communication between departments, according to Director of Business License Becki Ard.

In 2009, the city formed a team to study what could be done to make the process more organized and quicker for business owners. One change made was keeping active code clearance forms in a centralized location. Previously, forms were passed from office to office depending on where they were in the approval process. Putting everything in a central location allows staff to know exactly where the applications are in the process, Ard explained.

"By doing so we improved the image of the city, improved morale in the office, and made it much easier for the customer to do business with us," Ard said.