AYER -- The Finance Committee met with Town Clerk John Canney on Sept. 26. On the table was a discussion over who should follow up with Ayer businesses to ensure that they renew their business licenses.
Canney maintained the town clerk's function is to collect the fee associated with the filing of the business certificate, which is valid for four years.
"If the clerk collects and processes the fee, isn't it up to the clerk to make sure the list is up to date?" said committee Chairman Scott Houde. "Are you sending notices to businesses who filed four years ago?"
"The law says they come to us," said Canney. "They shall apply and keep it current."
Committee member John Kilcommins said the committee's goal was to "bring more revenue in relatively simply."
But Canney noted that a fledgling business may need to visit several town officials in order to launch a business -- the Planning Board and building inspector on zoning issues, the Board of Health for eateries, and selectmen issue liquor and common victuallers' licenses, for example.
"So you've got six to seven boards involved in the whole issue" of approving new business ventures, said Canney.
Houde explained "what we're trying to do is get a holistic look" at the process before seeking assistance from selectmen on an approach to suggest changes to the business certificate process. "Four years from now when they expire, we want to ensure the businesses know they have to come back. If the information sits solely with the clerk's office from four years ago, the information should come from the clerk's office. That's all you need for renewals."
Houde said the duty to notify delinquent businesses should fall to the town clerk "being the owner of the records."
Canney said the public records are open to public inspection for "anyone wanting to take a holistic approach" to the issue. But Canney suggested the issue was larger than just the notices themselves, as his office never comes into contact with a business that fails to pull a certificate application in the first place. Canney said someone needs to "take the lead" on the issue.
"There's no one central group, person or entity" in charge of the process, said Canney. "We send them all over the building. This issue is broader than just looking at the town clerk's office."
"There's a lot of different revenue points" along the way, said Canney. "There's not a lot of revenue that comes in on the clerk's office."
Canney added that his office is already responding to "many, many burdens being foisted on us" by unfunded state and federal mandates. New voter regulations and paperwork required for electronic voting for the military serving oversees is "very time consuming." Canney asked the committee to be "realistic" about the resources in his office.
"As long as the list exists, I don't think it would be insurmountable" to send notices, said Kilcommins.
Town Accountant Lisa Gabree suggested it might be helpful to study what other towns do. "I'll bet other town clerk's offices send out notices." While the sums collected may not amount to "a material amount of money," Gabree said, "we need to make sure we're collecting what we should be collecting in the first place."
Capital Planning Committee Chairwoman Mary Spinner said selectmen have clamped down on withholding liquor and common victualler licenses to those who owe taxes, water, sewer or other debts to the town. Canney suggested one entity look at all it takes to operate a "lawful, valid business in town."
Houde said his immediate concern was renewals "because it's the renewals where everything's dropping off."
"It should be the clerk's office, in my opinion, as the holder of the record" to send the notices, said Houde.
Canney said that focus doesn't capture those who have never filed a business license. Asked what the potential penalty is for those who fail to renew their business license, Canney said the business faces fines of $300 per month.
"And how do they get notice of that?" asked Finance Committee member Brian Muldoon.
"We're not attorneys on that in our office," said Canney, who suggested the committee check on the enforcement process with town counsel. "You'd probably be looking at some form of civil action against the party."
"Just let me ask one final question," said Houde. "You're not willing to do anything above and beyond?"
"I didn't say that," answered Canney. Canney repeated the Finance Committee's assertion that Economic Development Director David Maher maintains a master list of businesses operating in town.
"(But) you are the keeper of records," said Houde.
"True," said Canney. "I have them in my office alphabetized."
"The statute says you're the keeper of the record," said Houde. "You're not willing to do more?"
"I didn't say that," said Canney. "Your board is asking good questions." Canney said he was willing to discuss the entire process required of operating a business in Ayer.
"That's not the scope of what we're asking about," said Houde. "The key for the process of renewals is a communication to that business that their license is expiring on such and such a date and that they need to come to town hall. Is that something you'd be willing to do?"
"Is that something you'd recommend to the board of selectmen?" asked Canney. Yes replied Houde.
"We'd need resources," said Canney. Among those potential resources could be overtime, said Canney.
"I don't see a need for that, to be honest," said Houde. "This is a very simplistic process using a mail merge."
The Finance Committee was scheduled to meet next on Wednesday, Oct. 10.
Follow Mary Arata on twitter.com/maryearata.