Theater pleads for tax relief
Scott Bolejack | Johnstonian News
COViD-19 restrictions make for fewer showing and smaller audiences at North Carolina movie theaters, including Smithfield Cinemas.
SMITHFIELD — Johnston County Commissioners could do nothing on Jan. 4 to help Smithfield businessman John Shallcross Jr.
The owner of Smithfield Cinemas asked commissioners for relief from his property tax bill, but state law says counties can’t do that.
“For all practical purposes, our hands are tied,” said Jocelyn Andrews, the county’s tax administrator.
Even worse, if Shallcross failed to pay his tax bill by Jan. 5, the county would begin tacking on interest, Andrews said. “The next day, we are required to add a 2% interest to the liability,” she said. “And then on the first of each month after that is another three-quarter percent.”
Andrews apologized for the interest penalty. “Not exactly how I would choose to do that in a situation such as we’re living in this day and time, but again, my hands are somewhat tied,” she said.
Shallcross said North Carolina’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic had darkened his 10-screen theater for much of 2020. “The governor of North Carolina had us closed for 245 days,” he said. “It has been very difficult. We have lost a lot of money.”
Shallcross likened the mandated closure to the state taking his property. “In my mind, I feel like it’s eminent domain,” he said. “The governor has taken away our ability to earn money.”
Gov. Roy Cooper allowed movie theaters to reopen last fall, but the restrictions make it hard to earn money, Shallcross said. “We’re able to open with 25% seating capacity, which is not a sustainable business model, and we have to close before 10 o’clock at night,” he said.
Shallcross said he had tried, so far in vain, to find dollars to help his theater weather the pandemic. “We were holding out, hoping to get some federal funds,” he said. “We were told they were on the way. We’ve applied for all the state grants; still haven’t received anything.”
All of that brought Shallcross before commissioners on Jan. 4, the day before his taxes were due. “I’ve come at the 12th hour, not the 11th hour, but the 12th,” he said. “Through no fault of our own, we’re unable to pay these taxes.”
Andrews, the tax administrator, encouraged Shallcross to pay as much as he could as soon as he could. “I would encourage all taxpayers to pay whatever they can, because that would stop the interest at least on that portion,” she said.
The county does have discretion over how quickly it takes action to collect taxes, Commissioners Chairman Chad Stewart said to Andrews. “They don’t want their bank accounts garnished; they don’t want their land judgmented,” he said of property owners with overdue taxes. “We know that after a period of time, that is going to take place. But you do have direct control over how much time you can give before you start garnishing bank accounts.”
Andrews said her office was ready and willing to work with struggling taxpayers. “Reach out to us,” she said. “Our collections team will listen to you. I will listen to you. If you are in communication with us, we will work with you.”
Shallcross spoke to sympathetic listeners, including Commissioner Ted Godwin. “I realize the governor and his office all have good intentions,” he said. “But if the people in front of that camera received no paycheck as a result of their edict, it might shed a different light on that whole decision.”
Sympathy for his plight has been easy to find, Shallcross said, adding that he had also spoken to state lawmakers. “Everybody understands,” he said, “but no one’s doing anything.”
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