Covington Councilman Keith Dalton has apparently been operating his janitorial company without a local business license for years, according to a variety of publicly-available records.
Dalton’s business, Covington Window Cleaners, has no valid business license on file with Covington, Newton County, Social Circle, Conyers or Rockdale County, according to officials from each government, and it’s unclear if the business has ever had a valid license, based on records.
Covington Window Cleaners has been registered with the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office since June 1986 and lists a Covington P.O. Box and Dalton’s Flat Rock Trail home as its addresses. No commercial location is listed with the state or on his website. The phone book lists the Flat Rock Trail as the location of the business.
However, Dalton does not have a home occupation license on file with Covington, nor does he have a standard business license — known formally as an occupational tax permit. Searches of the planning department’s database do not show any license from previous years either.
When asked, Dalton told The News before the July 1 council meeting, and has also told other officials, that he has a business license with the city of Social Circle. However, there is no such license on record with Social Circle.
According to Social Circle City Clerk Susan Roper, Dalton applied for a business license June 26, after receiving a voice mail message from The News asking whether he had a license.
Social Circle records show Dalton attempted to apply for a business license for 2013 and retroactively apply for licenses for 2012 and 2011 as well. On his application he listed a Covington P.O. Box. Social Circle denied the application, sending a letter to Dalton that reads, "As we discussed, your business does not qualify for a business license in Social Circle based on the information provided."
Roper said Dalton also tried to use an address tied to the Social Circle City School system, but Roper said that wouldn’t be allowed unless the school gave permission. Dalton has a contract to clean for the Social Circle school system.
Dalton did not reply to an email or multiple phone messages left on his cell phone and with his business number.
Questions about real-estate business
There are also questions about Dalton’s real-estate business, Hat Creek Properties, through which he purchases residential properties. Dalton applied for a home occupation license for Hat Creek Properties on June 28, 2013. City records do not show a license for any prior year, despite the fact the company has been in operation since 2007, according to the Georgia Secretary of State.
Dalton co-owns the business with Covington Police Capt. Craig Treadwell. The two men confirmed in a January 2013 article that they have bought, flipped and rented out properties for the past few years.
Covington Senior Planner Scott Gaither was not asked specifically about Dalton’s business but was asked to comment on the hypothetical situation of a business operating for years without a license.
"If a business is not legally operating (i.e. hasn’t paid its occupation tax), then we will provide them notice via code enforcement and should they still not comply, code enforcement would issue a citation," Gaither said in a Friday email. "Should the business owner pay the occupation tax and subject penalty ($10) the citation would be dropped prior to court appearance.
"If payment is not completed by the court date, the municipal judge could fine the violator up to $1,000 and/or 30 days in jail."
Both a home occupation license and a regular business license (occupational tax permit) cost $100.
When asked if a business could be charged business licenses fees retroactively, Gaither wrote, "If we can prove without a shadow of doubt the number of years they have operated without payment of the tax, we would seek total payment."
However, multiple government officials said, and have said previously, the goal of planning and code enforcement is always to get compliance, not necessarily to penalize a person or business. So, it’s unclear what route the city would take.
Both home occupation and business licenses are supposed to be paid for by Jan. 1 of each year, assuming they are operating when the year begins, and if a payment is not received by Jan. 31, the business is subject to penalties.
According to the city code (54.04.080, B.), "Delinquent taxes shall carry interest and penalty as provided in O.C.G.A. Sections 48-2-40 and 48-13-21…"
Also, if a person operates a business with multiple employees, they must pay additional fees for each full-time employee. Dalton listed five employees on his Social Circle application that was denied. Social Circle charged $4.50 per employee.
According to the city of Covington’s code, a license has been required for businesses since 1995; it is unclear if any license payments or late fees would be applicable for years before 1995.
Gauging the seriousness of not paying business licenses fees is a judgment call, but the city does specify in its code that, "The occupation tax levied under this chapter is for revenue purposes only and is not for regulatory purposes, nor is the payment of the tax made a condition precedent to the practice of any profession or engaging in any occupation."
A big business
When Covington Window Cleaners started in 1986, it was a small operation but has now grown to a major business, according to a person with knowledge of the business, who requested anonymity.
The person said the business has several major cleaning contracts around town with both public agencies, including the Covington Branch Library and Newton County Health Department, as well as major private businesses. The contract with Social Circle schools is also a significant one.
The person said the total number of employees is more than 30; however, some of those employees could be self-employed independent contractors, who would not have to be counted on a business license application.
Finally, the person said he has never known the business to operate out of any location other than Dalton’s Flat Rock Trail home.
The Newton County Board of Commissioners earlier canceled its contract with a local landscaping firm because the owner was found not to have a current, valid license. In that case, the business owner had been found frequently to be late paying his business license fees and had operated without a license for some years, but had caught up on payments.
The board is pursuing a new purchasing policy that will require all business getting new contracts with the county to show proof of a valid, current business license.
However, both the library and health department have their own boards, which would not be subject to such a revised purchasing policy. It’s unclear what, if any action, those boards would take. The Social Circle school system was closed Friday and could not be reached for comment.
Newton County Purchasing Director Mary Ann Patterson said the county does not currently have any contracts with Covington Window Cleaners; the company did work for the county years ago, but not recently, she said.
The investigation into Dalton’s business license history stemmed from complaints from neighbors, who felt it was unfair for Dalton’s employees to be allowed to park in his driveway.
"It’s been a sore point for me and others in the neighborhood. He claims it’s just a small business, but there are cars coming and going and he brags he has 30 to 40 employees," said a neighbor, who requested to remain anonymous.
The neighbor said other business owners have to pay for rent for a commercial building, business licenses, commercial utility rates and costs to ensure the building meets building code requirements.
Initially, when city planning officials investigated the issue, they did not find any violation, because it was assumed Dalton had a valid business license in another jurisdiction.
However, Dalton would not be allowed to have his employees park numerous vehicles on his property if he had a home occupation license, based on city ordinances.
"Only vehicles used primarily as passenger vehicles shall be permitted in connection with the conduct of the home occupation," reads section M of the city’s home occupation code.
Based on the information above, in order to have a legally operating business, Dalton would either have to rent a commercial property and acquire a business license, or get a home occupation license and have his employees park elsewhere.