For the past three years, Marilyn Bess has operated MS Philly Organic, a small, low-traffic blog that features occasional posts about green living, out of her Manayunk home. Between her blog and infrequent contributions to ehow.com, over the last few years she says she’s made about $50. To Bess, her website is a hobby. To the city of Philadelphia, it’s a potential moneymaker, and the city wants its cut.
In May, the city sent Bess a letter demanding that she pay $300, the price of a business privilege license.
“The real kick in the pants is that I don’t even have a full-time job, so for the city to tell me to pony up $300 for a business privilege license, pay wage tax, business privilege tax, net profits tax on a handful of money is outrageous,” Bess says.
It would be one thing if Bess’ website were, well, an actual business, or if the amount of money the city wanted didn’t outpace her earnings six-fold. Sure, the city has its rules; and yes, cash-strapped cities can’t very well ignore potential sources of income. But at the same time, there must be some room for discretion and common sense.
When Bess pressed her case to officials with the city’s now-closed tax amnesty program, she says, “I was told to hire an accountant.”
She’s not alone. After dutifully reporting even the smallest profits on their tax filings this year, a number — though no one knows exactly what that number is — of Philadelphia bloggers were dispatched letters informing them that they owe $300 for a privilege license, plus taxes on any profits they made.
Even if, as with Sean Barry, that profit is $11 over two years.
Barry’s music-oriented blog, Circle of Fits, is hosted on Blogspot; as of this writing, its home page has two ads on it, but because he gets only a fraction of the already low ad revenue — the rest goes to Blogspot — it’s far from lucrative.
“Personally, I don’t think Circle of Fits is a business,” says Barry. “It might be someday if I start selling coffee mugs, key chains or locks of my hair to my fans. I don’t think blogs should be taxed unless they are making an immense profit.”
The city disagrees. Even though small-time bloggers aren’t exactly raking in the dough, the city requires privilege licenses for any business engaged in any “activity for profit,” says tax attorney Michael Mandale of Center City law firm Mandale Kaufmann. This applies “whether or not they earned a profit during the preceding year,” he adds.
So even if your blog collects a handful of hits a day, as long as there’s the potential for it to be lucrative — and, as Mandale points out, most hosting sites set aside space for bloggers to sell advertising — the city thinks you should cut it a check. According to Andrea Mannino of the Philadelphia Department of Revenue, in fact, simply choosing the option to make money from ads — regardless of how much or little money is actually generated — qualifies a blog as a business. The same rules apply to freelance writers. As former City Paper news editor Doron Taussig once lamented [Slant, “Taxed Out,” April 28, 2005], the city considers freelancers — which both Bess and Barry are, in addition to their blog work — “businesses,” and requires them to pay for a license and pay taxes on their profits, on top of their state and federal taxes.
Mannino says the city doesn’t keep track of how many bloggers and small-website owners are affected. But bloggers aren’t the only ones upset with the city’s tax structure. In June, City Council members Bill Green and Maria Quiñones-Sánchez unveiled a proposal to reform the city’s business privilege tax in an effort to make Philly a more attractive place for small businesses. If their bill passes, bloggers will still have to get a privilege license if their sites are designed to make money, but they would no longer have to pay taxes on their first $100,000 in profit. (If bloggers don’t want to fork over $300 for a lifetime license, Green suggests they take the city’s $50-a-year plan.)
Their bill will be officially introduced in September. “There’s a lot of support and interest in this idea,” Green says.
Perhaps, but it doesn’t change the fact that the city wants some people to pay more in taxes than they earn. “I definitely don’t want to see people paying more in taxes and fees than what [we] earn,” says Bess. “But I do think the city needs to establish a minimal amount of money that they won’t tax, whether you’re a bike messenger, microblogger or a freelance typist.”