The District government's effort to collect the first installment of a business tax to build a new baseball stadium has outraged some company owners, confused others and renewed a political discussion about restructuring the tax.
An estimated 1,300 businesses that have gross receipts of $5 million or more will be expected to pay the tax, or ballpark fee, said city officials, who mailed out the bills this month. The fees, which initially were due June 15, range from $5,500 to $16,500 depending on the size of a company. The city's Office of Tax and Revenue has granted a two-week filing extension to June 30, which will allow businesses to obtain more information about the filing process.
Objections to the tax bills came quickly.
Warren J. Cox, a principal in Hartman-Cox Architects, said he did not closely follow the stadium debate in the fall and was shocked last week when his accountant asked him to approve a $10,800 check to the District. He dashed off a letter to D.C. Council members saying he was paying under protest and was considering legal action.
"When I told my partners, they had apoplexy. That's a lot of money," Cox said in an interview.
Representatives from the D.C. Chamber of Commerce met last week with city leaders to express their concerns about the fee structure.
In response, council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) said yesterday that she might revisit the tax law this fall to make changes aimed at easing the burden on some businesses.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) proposed the gross receipts tax in the fall as a key element in his plan to fund a stadium on the Anacostia waterfront for the Washington Nationals.
Under his original proposal, the tax would have collected $26 million a year. But the D.C. Council, under pressure from businesses, reduced that to $14 million. That money, along with funds from a utilities tax on businesses and federal buildings, an annual rent payment by the Nationals and a concessions tax, will be used to pay debt service on stadium construction bonds.
Officials said yesterday that the city could end up with more money from the ballpark fee than is necessary because they may have under-estimated the number of companies that will be required to pay. Officials declined to say what they would do with extra funds.
The tax bills rekindled the debate in which some company owners complained last fall that the tax represents an unfair subsidy to Major League Baseball.
"I was very much for the baseball team, but I am very much against the way the city proposed to raise funds to pay for it," said Dudley Dworken, who has operated Curtis Chevrolet in the District since 1966. He also owns a smaller car dealership and paid more than $21,000 in gross receipts taxes last week.
"My gripe is that baseball is a private enterprise, but here we are being asked to support it and pay for it for 20 years," Dworken said. "I'm seriously considering pulling up roots here. . . . It's so much cheaper a mile away in Maryland."
A chief complaint is that some companies gross a lot of money, but have low profit. A group of oncologists met with Cropp last week to argue that much of their revenue is collected as a way to pay for medicine for patients.
"They're paying tax on something off which they do not make money," said Edward Shanbacker, executive vice president of the Medical Society of the District of Columbia.
Cropp said she agreed with Shanbacker. "I don't think they should be penalized for providing a good service," she said.
Another point of contention is that the fee structure puts an unfair burden on smaller companies, said Barbara B. Lang, president of the Chamber of Commerce. All businesses that gross more than $16 million pay the same amount -- $16,500 -- no matter if they make one dollar more or $100 million more.
The city's largest companies should assume more of the burden, Lang said.
Cora Williams, a chamber board member who operates Ideal Electric Supply Corp. in the District, said she has not paid the $10,800 fee that she has been assessed for one reason: She doesn't have the money.
"In our industry we'd be lucky netting 1 percent. We don't just have $10,000 lying around," said Williams, who said she intends to ask the city for an extension.
Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), who voted against building a stadium with public money, said he expected angst in the business community when the bills arrived.
"There's no good reason why one business should have to subsidize another person's business," said Fenty, a mayoral candidate. "Business owners have as much claim to the renaissance of D.C. as anyone. But no one is buying them a headquarters or building."