Chrissy Benoit refuses to be pushed around. The owner of Havana Hideout, in Lake Worth, Benoit says the Palm Beach county tax collector's office has essentially been shaking her down for an "entertainment fee" because the bar occasionally pays musicians to play live. Benoit says the tax is explicitly meant for venues that charge a cover -- which she never does -- and she isn't going to pay the tax.
And it appears the City of Lake Worth supports her.
Not long ago, Benoit received a call telling her she owes the county $1,800 in back taxes. She was informed that, until now, her bar had "slipped through the cracks," but now the county was aware that she had been offering live music for three years. The total included three years' worth of the $350 "entertainment fee" plus penalties and interest. "They were charging me penalties for a tax they admitted they didn't even tell me about," Benoit tells the Juice.
She says the county is desperate for money. "It's a bad economy," she says. "But they're coming after small businesses. Most of us don't have any kind of legal representation, and we can't defend ourselves. And they know that."
In January, Lake Worth Mayor Rene Varela wrote a letter to the County Commission complaining that the entertainment fee is being "misapplied." The fee comes from an old county dance-hall ordinance that requires the fee to be paid by operators of businesses "where dancing is permitted and/or entertainment is provided for a charge."
County Tax Collector Anne Gannon told the Palm Beach Post earlier this month that even if bars don't charge for music directly, the tax also applies to businesses that use music to draw customers. She said county employees scour local advertising to determine which bars are offering entertainment. "If it's a county ordinance, we have the authority to enforce it," Gannon said. "And we intend to enforce it."
The bar owner obviously disagrees. "I think that's a horrible argument they're making," Benoit says. "It's a very slippery slope. I keep the garden pretty, plants trimmed, and flowers blooming for the enjoyment of my guests, so do I now need to pay for a landscaping license? I keep the bathrooms clean and stocked; do I now need a janitorial license? I paint the cracked and peeling walls; do I need a painting license? Where does this insane excuse for logic stop?"
Benoit estimates the basic operational costs of a small business are far higher than people expect. "Off the top my head, between paying for bands and paying my inflated utility bill and a health permit and a food permit and all of that, it's around $135,000. And now they want to charge me extra because I pay bands."
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One local band manager suggested these practices hurt the local live music scene more than the county realizes. "When they start going after the little bars just because they pay people to play, eventually these places are going to go out of business or they're going to stop paying musicians. Either way, it's not good for local music."
Benoit says there's hope. She's been told that at a city meeting last night, representatives from the county presented a letter saying they will amend the statute so that it doesn't include businesses that do not charge for music.
"Good for them for deciding that," Benoit says, "but at the same time, they never should have included us in the first place."
Meanwhile, she says she received a letter from the Tax Collector's Office too. The county has added an additional $250 late charge for not paying the original fee.