The owner of a local bed and breakfast is asking the City of Whitehorse to suspend its requirement for paid business licences for enterprises, like his, that are without income due to COVID-19.
The request came from Gregory Bryce, owner of the Four Seasons Bed and Breakfast in Riverdale. He provided a written submission that was read at Whitehorse city council’s May 4 meeting. Delegates cannot currently make presentations in person due to physical distancing measures, but submissions are being read aloud at meetings.
In his request Bryce asked that the city issue a licence without penalty when businesses that are shut due to the pandemic reopen.
As he explained, in his own case, his business licence is up for annual renewal on May 17 at a cost of $160.
“As a result of the coronavirus, all my expected guests scheduled from March to early June cancelled their reservations in March,” he told city council. “This is normally a very slow season for me, but these did amount to six parties — from Canada, the U.S. and Germany — and 25 room-nights. It is quite possible that I will not be able to accept any nightly guests for the rest of the year.”
He expects to lose all the income that would normally come into his bed and breakfast for the year, amounting to anywhere between $19,000 and $26,000.
Where possible, he said, he is cutting costs through measures like freezing his credit card processing account. He had already paid for of this year’s expenses like advertising.
Bryce suggested the city could require impacted business owners to sign a promise to notify the city when the business reopens or that could be done on the basis of trust.
If the city requires some sort of payment from such businesses, he suggested the renewal fee be reduced to a minimal $10 or $20.
Bryce went on to make a number of more long-term suggestions for the city around business licence fees, noting that on those suggestions “no immediate decisions are required.”
He argued business licence fees should be based on revenue and that it be equitable so that all short-term accommodations (including Airbnb and the like) are paying a business licence fee.
He also went on to question how much work the bylaw department puts into regulating short-term accommodations after the significant effort it takes businesses (in this case the previous owner of the bed and breakfast) to meet regulations, there’s little contact with the city.
“From 2003 to 2019, I have paid the City $2,400 in license fees. (The rate increased from $120 to $144 in 2009 and to $160 in 2014.),” Bryce wrote. “Yet, I have not once, in my memory, had contact with bylaw in relation to this business. Once the initial (licence) has been issued, it is difficult to see what benefit these annual fees provide to the business or the public.”
After Bryce’s presentation was read at the meeting, councillors Steve Roddick and Jan Stick highlighted a number of federal and territorial COVID-relief programs, suggesting bed and breakfast owners like Bryce should look into those routes as a possibility.
“There’s lots of options,” Stick said.
Council did not indicate during the meeting whether it would consider suspending the business licence requirement for those that are shut due to COVID.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Mayor Dan Curtis said administration would have to look at the issue. This is the first such request the city has received on business licences.
He noted though it can be a difficult issue as city fees such as business licence fees account for half of the city’s operating budget.
While the city is not charging additional fees and interest on utility (water, sewer, garbage) bills during the COVID emergency, the charges for the service are still in place. Similarly, the Yukon government passed an order so that penalties and interest won’t be charged on property tax bills until after Sept. 2 (normally, that would start after July 2 when taxes are due).
In a May 5 interview, Bryce said he watched the May 4 council meeting and feels council members were receptive to his submission and he’s looking forward to a resolution.
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