Unfortunately for all small businesses struggling to figure out how to reprogram their POS systems for a cocktail that uses one ounce of ginger ale… the sweetened beverage tax is back and will be implemented this Wednesday, August 2nd. Get ready NOW.
Huge, breaking news! I’ll update my original blog post accordingly and keep you updated as I learn more. Read the short article here:
Update 7/29: The tax is back, starting this Wed, Aug 2nd: http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-cook-county-soda-pop-tax-lawsuit-20170728-story.html
And in related news: 1,100 layoffs anticipated after Cook County soda tax blocked — Chicago Tribune
6/30/17 — BREAKING NEWS — A judge has temporarily blocked the new tax, until at least July 12th. I will post an update here as soon as I have one.
Our local governments have done it again. After the headache of figuring out and implementing the bag tax earlier this year, we now have Cook County’s new Sweetened Beverage Tax. This, by the way, is in addition to the soft drink tax and fountain drink tax that exist at the city level, and a proposed tax at the state level:
“The tax levied in this Article shall be in addition to any other taxes.”
I won’t go into the debate on the social merits of the tax and how successful or unsuccessful this new tax is likely to be regarding public health. And I won’t argue about what the real underlying reason behind the tax is — be it economically-, socially- or politically-motivated. I also won’t comment on how many find the tax regressive, disproportionately hurting the poor.
What I will go into are the challenges in administration, implementation and complexity that transactional taxes such as this tend to be, especially for small businesses, and I’ll try to explain as simply as possible what the requirements are for different types of businesses in meeting this new ordinance.
What is the new Cook County Sweetened Beverage Tax?
Starting July 1, 2017, a $0.01-per ounce tax is imposed on the retail sale of all “sweetened beverages” in Cook County.
How will it be imposed?
(a) Distributors of bottled/canned soda and of “syrup”/powder to make soda will charge the tax to their retail customers; and,
(b) Retailers will pass the tax along to their consumers.
So far, pretty simple. The challenges lie in the definitions, the requirements, and the implementation.
Let’s start with definitions.
We all think we know what a sweetened beverage is, and what a syrup is. We’re wrong.
A sweetened beverage 1) is non-alcoholic, 2) is either carbonated or non-carbonated, 3) is intended for human consumption, 4) contains sweetener (caloric or non-caloric), 5) is available for sale in a container or through the use of “syrup” or powder. Not too confusing.
Here’s what a sweetened beverage is NOT, however…
Obvious: 100% natural fruit or veggie juice, infant formula, beverages for medical use, meal replacement beverages.
* beverage with >50% milk or milk substitute;
* beverages to which a purchaser can add, or can request that a retailer add sweetener;
* any “syrup” or powder that the purchaser himself or herself combines with other ingredients to create a beverage.
But wait… it gets more interesting. The reason I keep putting the word “syrup” in quotes is that it has its own definition:
“a liquid mixture, containing any caloric sweetener or non-caloric sweetener as an ingredient, intended to be used, or actually used, in making, mixing or compounding a sweetened beverage by combining the syrup with one or more other ingredients using a beverage dispensing machine.”
Did you catch that last bit? If the syrup is not used or intended to be used to make a sweetened beverage “using a beverage dispensing machine“, then it’s not syrup, and therefore doesn’t make a sweetened beverage. (This does not apply to powders, which are still subject to the tax if hand-mixed.)
This means that specialty coffee and cocktails are not taxable unless they are pre-packaged in a container. The FAQ points out that “in general, the ordinance taxes ready-to-drink beverages”.
As ridiculous as these definitions are, the good news here is that businesses that hand-mix syrups for coffee, tea, soda, milkshakes, cocktails, etc… are off the hook for this tax — in potentially more ways than one.
How will the tax be administered?
- Distributors must register with the County by July 31st. The distributor will then receive pre-printed tax returns (there is no online option for filing this tax).
- Distributors will charge the tax to their retail customers starting July 1st.
- Distributors will file a monthly return with the County (even if no tax is due) by the 20th of each month and remit the tax (just like state sales taxes).
- Retailers must pay the tax charged to them by the distributor on their vendor invoices.
- If a retailer purchases sweetened beverages from a distributor that is not registered, they must self-register and remit the tax to the County. This is just like the bag tax situation. There is a list at the bottom of the County Sweetened Beverage Tax webpage noting registered distributors. As with bag taxes, if you are a retailer, make sure you are buying your product from a registered distributor.
- Similarly, if a retailer produces their own sweetened beverages, they must register and remit the tax to the County.
- Retailers must charge the tax to their customers — the ultimate consumers of the sweetened beverage.
That last item is especially important. This is not like the bag tax, which a retailer can choose to absorb instead of passing along to the consumer. The sweetened beverage tax must be passed along to the ultimate purchaser.
“It shall be deemed a violation of this Article for any distributor or retailer… to otherwise absorb the tax.”
Including the tax in the sales price without violating city, state and federal laws
This is the part that — aside from the definitions — I am finding most challenging for my small business clients.
Initially it was easy: similar to the liquor gallonage tax (an excise tax), a distributor could just charge the tax to the retailers, who then simply adjusted their prices upwards to cover the extra cost of goods, without specifying how they were passing the cost along to their customers. In fact, the sweetened beverage tax ordinance specifically states that both the distributor and the retailer must include the tax in the sale price of the sweetened beverages, syrup or powder.
“It shall be deemed a violation of this Article for any distributor or retailer to fail to include the tax imposed in this Article in the sale price of the sweetened beverage, syrup and/or powder…”
Then the County (who some have accused of a disastrous rollout of this tax) was challenged by the City of Chicago, State of Illinois, and Federal Department of Agriculture.
1) The City of Chicago has a law that requires all taxes to be listed separately for consumers. From the County’s FAQ on the sweetened beverage tax:
“Q: The tax folded into the selling price may violate the City of Chicago’s requirements on what must be included on labels/receipts. Is the County working with the City on this? A: We have looked at the City requirements and do not believe this violates their labeling requirements. While the tax should be included within the shelf price, the tax may be separately stated on the receipt or invoice.”
Well, which is it? I don’t know a single small business that has a Point-of-Sale system advanced or complex enough to both include the tax in the sales price on labels and receipts, as well as separate the tax on receipts. This is a serious issue to which a solution has not yet been found. As a result, on June 13, 2017, the County was forced to amend one of their revenue regulations (2017-2) modifying the original ordinance (there have already been four such regs, two of which have been updated or amended).
“Understanding that distributors and/or retailers may need additional time to program their POS systems to allow for the tax to be reflected in the menu/advertised/shelf sale price, distributors and/or retailers will have an additional 6-month period, until January 1, 2018, to comply with the display requirements laid out in this regulation.”
2) The State of Illinois prohibits any tax to be levied on top of another tax. If retailers followed the County’s requirement to include this tax in the sales price of the sweetened beverage, then that would mean that the Chicago Soda Tax and the IL Sales Tax would both be charged on top of the County Sweetened Beverage Tax. Same situation as #1 in that the “solution” is to delay the requirement to reflect the tax in the sales price.
3) The initial solution to both (1) and (2) above was to make the soda tax a line-item at the point of sale, but “it ran afoul of the Department of Agriculture, which advised it was against federal law to tax transactions paid for with benefits from its Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP).” The Department of Agriculture stated that the soda tax “could be applied to SNAP purchases so long as it wasn’t imposed at the point of sale.” This caused the County to release Revenue Regulation 2017-3 on June 6th, which gives retailers these options:
Where a purchaser uses SNAP benefits to purchase sweetened beverages, the retailer must do one of the following:
1. If the sweetened beverage tax is separately stated on a retailer’s cash register receipts, the POS system should be programmed not to charge the tax when SNAP benefits are used.
2. If the sweetened beverage tax is included in the selling price on a retailer’s cash register receipts, the POS system should be programmed to reduce the price by the amount of tax when the beverages are purchased using SNAP benefits. If this programming is not possible, the retailer must put in place a procedure whereby a purchaser who uses SNAP benefits can receive an immediate refund at the customer service desk or other location within the retailer’s premises.
In both situations above, the retailers should be given a credit for these tax exempt purchases on the next bills from their distributors. Distributors will be permitted to claim a deduction on their monthly sweetened beverage tax return for the amount of the credits provided to retailers.
Really. That sounds convenient for everyone involved.
What is the tax charged on? Does ice count? What about free refills? What about donated and sampled beverages? What about alcohol mixers?
The tax is charged at the rate of 1-cent-per-ounce, which is easy for pre-made beverages delivered in containers (bottles, cans, etc.). This is more challenging for syrups and powders (and remember, it’s only considered a syrup — and therefore a sweetened beverage — if it’s run through a beverage machine). The tax is applied to the total amount of beverage that the product will make per the manufacturer’s directions. It doesn’t matter if you make it differently — you apply the tax based on the volume it would make if you followed the instructions. I know. Yes, really.
As for ice: “the retailer should charge tax on the ounces sold. The addition of ice is at the discretion of the retailer/customer and does not affect the amount of tax due.”
Free refills are even more fun. The retailer must determine how much of the tax amount should be added to the sale price of the original beverage. So if you offer one free refill, you have to charge twice the tax on the original beverage sale, assuming the person will get a refill. Not fair, but easy. However, if you offer unlimited refills, how in the world do you estimate how many they will drink? The County says estimates are not acceptable. Good luck.
As for donated and sampled beverages — “the business that opens the beverages for self-use or samples or donates the beverages is the end user”. This means that if the product qualifies as a sweetened beverage, and the distributor or retailer donates or opens the beverage for floor samples or samples to potential customers… then that distributor or retailer is responsible for paying the tax on it.
If alcohol mixers themselves meet the definition of sweetened beverages (usually this would mean a canned, bottled, or fountain soda pop of some sort), then that portion of the drink — that many ounces — should have the tax charged on it. But not syrups added to a drink, since those would be hand-mixed. This should be fun!
Floor Tax Return – What is it and when is it due?
From the Sweetened Beverage Tax FAQ: “All businesses must begin collecting the tax on July 1, 2017. Because retailers may have inventory on that date that they obtained before the tax was in effect, they must remit the tax before collecting it from their customers. Accordingly, retailers must take inventory of bottled sweetened beverages, syrup and powder in their possession on June 30, 2017 and remit tax on those items directly to the Department by August 20, 2017 along with a floor tax return (will be posted on the DOR website). After July 1, 2017, retailers will submit the tax to registered distributors.”
A copy of the Floor Tax Return can be found in the “Downloads” section on on the right-side of the County webpage on the new tax.
It’s actually really easy to fill out — the difficulty is in figuring out how many ounces of product you need to declare (if you’re using syrup or powder, that is).
Refunds, Spillage, Product Preparation
A reduction of 5% of the calculated tax will be applied by distributors of syrups and powders to the vendor invoices sent to retailers, to account for spillage and product preparation. I am unable to tell from the County’s information whether distributors will do this automatically or if the retailer has to request it.
Retailers can request refunds from their distributors resulting from the return of product by a retailer (as well as breakage and spoilage), or due to tax-exempt sales to SNAP recipients, or sales outside of the county, etc. The distributor must refund the tax amount to the retailer before applying for a refund from the County — potentially putting them into a challenging cash flow situation.
Any claim for a credit or refund must be filed on forms provided by the County — but no more than four years after the situation which caused it to happen.
March 1, 2017 – “Sweetened Beverage Tax ordinance goes into effect; distributors will receive information beforehand about registering with the Cook County Department of Revenue.” Supposedly. If they don’t know you’re a distributor, you won’t get anything. Or you may receive something because they think you’re a distributor, but you’re not. If you don’t get what you need, or if you get something and it doesn’t apply, immediately contact the County at email@example.com.
June 30, 2017 – “Sweetened Beverage Floor Tax inventory date; retailers must take inventory subject to sweetened beverage tax in which tax was not previously collected.”
July 1, 2017 – “Sweetened Beverage Tax goes into effect; retailers and distributors must begin collecting tax.”
August 20, 2017 – “Retailers must remit to the Department its floor tax return and payment.” (This refers to the inventory taken June 30th, on which tax to a distributor was not paid.)
August 20, 2017 – “Distributors must remit to the Department its tax payment and monthly return reflecting July 2017 activity.”
Main Sources: Sweetened Beverage Tax | CookCountyIL.gov and Sweetened Beverage Tax FAQ | CookCountyIL.gov — On these sites you can download the original ordinance, all related revenue regulations, all forms, and you can view the lists of registered distributors and products qualified as medical beverages.
Please remember that I’m not an attorney, I don’t work for the County, and I’m just doing my best to read, understand, and interpret the ordinance and related websites and resources for my own clients. None of this should be considered legal advice. If you have any questions, I encourage you to email firstname.lastname@example.org.
A year ago, I attended my first Woodard Scaling New Heights conference. This is one of the three conferences that accounting technology geeks like me get really excited about — the other two being Accountex (formerly Sleeter Technology) and QB Connect (which I’ll be attending later this year for my first time). I absolutely loved it. I’d been to Sleeter for two years in a row, and as much as I enjoyed attending, one of their successes was helping me realize that I really want to be a QuickBooks-centric practice… I’m not interested in branching out into non-QB accounting options such as Xero, Wave, Zoho, etc. I only know this because of excellent presentations such as Greg Lam and Michelle Long‘s overviews — so I’m indebted to them — but colleagues there suggested that maybe SNH was a better choice for me, since it’s more QB-centric. (They were right.)
One problem remains. I’m not one for motivational speeches. I run my own CPA firm, so if I’m going to take time off work and pay for conference fees, travel & lodging, I’d better be spending that time and money learning something that will help me when I get back to the office — measurable results, real-life advice, tips & tricks that I can put into action to improve my clients’ lives and make me more efficient. Motivational speeches and entertainment just aren’t “worth” my time — I sit through them wishing I’d spent the time doing almost anything else. While we’re at it: I also can’t stand sales pitches. Nor information that is so general, I feel I’ve heard it all before. Finding the right conferences can be a bit of a challenge.
I was a little disappointed in the last Sleeter Technology Conference (now Accountex) I attended. In my opinion, there are too many “keynote” sessions… ones that are meant to “fire up” the audience and get us excited, or big names that we can brag about having seen in-person. These sessions are the only ones that are not concurrent with other learning sessions, meaning that 1) there’s nothing else to do during these sessions, and yet 2) there are so many concurrent sessions that I can’t attend because — well, they’re simultaneous. I wish they’d offer some of those during the keynotes so that I don’t miss the chance to go to more of them.
Yes, I know I can play “hooky” during these sessions — as my colleagues regularly remind me — but honestly, come on: I’m paying to be there. Ideally, the entire conference would be so amazing that I never want to skip out on it (though it is challenging, since they’re always held in interesting places). It might be different if my boss paid my way, but I am the boss! I can’t do billable work while I’m in sessions, so I’m effectively giving up my salary for the entire trip; plus, all of the costs are coming out of my own pocket. I’m not inclined to cheat myself out of much-valued education.
Furthermore, the breakout sessions offered by vendor-partners (presenters that are also at the conference expo, hawking their wares to us) are too often — as mentioned above — 1) either a sales pitch, which is no fun at all and just fosters resentment, or 2) more likely, the vendor has been threatened so hard NOT to make it a sales pitch, that they only offer extremely general “insights” into the industry that motivated them to create a solution. Except… see, we’re already aware of these “insights” — that’s why we attended the session in the first place: to find solutions to the problems we’re already aware exist. What we want when we attend these vendor-presented sessions is in-between these angles: a brief description of the industry issues, and then a specific explanation of how they attempted to solve these issues, and a demo of how it works. That’s not sales — that’s education on a particular piece of software, which allows us to evaluate programs based on how they work, not based on a marketing team’s list of bullet points. (I especially love vendor sessions that are on one particular topic and invite more than one vendor to illustrate their solution to it. That way we get a side-by-side, and can ask questions candidly.)
But the best sessions of all are offered by independent practitioners showing us how they use these various products to solve real-life problems that they’ve come across in their own practices. And that is what I got at last year’s Woodard “Scaling New Heights” conference.
Yes, as with their big competing conference, there were too many keynote “general sessions”. In fact, Joe Woodard’s initial presentation about how Poseidon was going to flood the room (but it’s okay… because he had a “magical force field around us” ???) — was so bad that I was terrified I’d made a serious mistake in attending. (To reiterate: I desperately wish they’d offer an alternative to the general sessions for those of us who prefer to focus on specific learning.)
But — WOW — did they make up for these with some of the best breakout sessions I’ve ever attended. Hector Garcia’s Quickbooks sessions were all incredible, with real-life tips and best practices. I passed the QBO certification with flying colors, no doubt in part to his training. Will English, who I initially met at Sleeter (and who writes for Intuitive Accountant), gave an insightful session on POS solutions — specifically ones that work for retail inventory maanagement. Norman Axelman did a couple great sessions on Excel tricks — he was very generous with his time and eager to solve everyone’s issues. Stacy Kildal was one of my favorite presenters, as she nailed the two-prong approach that most appeals to me: 1) new technologies 2) applied in real-life situations. Her session on QBO apps was insightful and inspiring, and I wish there were a three-hour-long session where I could just watch her work. David Leary from Intuit was one of the most sincere “big-deal” presenters I’ve ever seen; to some extent he restored some of my trust in QB. His eagerness to answer questions and explain the “why” behind big-company decisions was refreshing.
One recommendation to organizers (and DIY attendees) — I always go through the directory of exhibitors and sort them by type of solution: financial analysis, business management/workflow, inventory, publications, POS systems, payroll, 1099/W-2 prep, etc. So it certainly would be helpful if the exhibitors were color-coded by industry, to help us decide who to visit in our limited time away from sessions.
I’m headed back there this week, eager to soak up as much information as I can, and to avoid as many references to the “Yeti” of our practice challenges that we all have to face. (I’m not kidding; that’s the theme.) And if that turns you off as much as it does me, please reconsider, because there are 98 pages of training session information — and I’m just talking about the summaries of the sessions, not the handouts. Plenty of non-Yeti material for us all.
Stacey Byrne will be offering Restaurant Industry Tips & Tricks; MB Raimondi will be teaching the QB Desktop Advanced ProAdvisor Certification Exam Prep; Michelle Long is teaching Apps 101; and Stacy Kildal and Ingrid Edstrom are teaching the session that most interests me: a People’s Choice Peer-Led Apps Training that compares Fathom and LivePlan.
I hope to see you at Scaling New Heights!
(In case you know what you came here for, and don’t want to read my long-winded intro, here’s a link to the article you really want to read: Credit Card Processing Guide for Small Businesses – The Simple Dollar.)
I get contacted pretty often by companies asking if they can submit to my blog, or if I’d be willing to tout their product, website, app, etc. Generally, the answer is “no” — I started this blog as a sort of collection of searchable bookmarks for myself, to save the research and resources that I’ve found helpful in my own practice and for clients; not as a marketing tool, and certainly not as a platform for folks to sell their solutions.
However, once-in-a-while, the information that I’m sent is so valuable and useful that… well, it fits all my criteria for bookmarking and sharing, and I feel lucky that the resource landed in my lap. This is one of those posts.
I have mixed feelings about personal finance site The Simple Dollar — though much of the content is excellent, some of it is oversimplified, and certain articles seem to encourage readers to believe they can handle challenging financial situations without the advice of a professional.
But this article is the best I’ve ever seen on the topic of credit card processing for small businesses. If you are starting a small business and haven’t yet made the decision about whether or not to accept credit cards; or if you’re at the point in your business’ development where it’s time to make the leap, but you’re not sure in which direction; or if you’re already accepting cards but are worried you’re paying too much: read it. It’s comprehensive, full of information and examples, and if you’re willing to take the time to study it and take notes, you will not regret the investment. In fact, it will likely save you time — and definitely money — in the long run.
“Due to the lack of transparency and hidden fees scattered throughout the credit card processing industry, there is a gross misconception of how debit and credit card processing work. This creates a challenge for many small business owners because making an uneducated decision could cost time and money. For this reason, The Simple Dollar has developed a guide that aims to help small businesses gain in-depth knowledge about credit card payment processing, along with practical strategies to manage their fees and get the most out of their services.”
They offer advice on how to find the lowest possible credit card processing cost:
- Isolate the markup
- Choose a pricing model (pass-through pricing is cheapest)
- Compare multiple processors with fees up-front and in writing
- Calculate the total cost
- Negotiate favorable terms (they even offer a list of terms they specifically recommend working on)
As well as suggestions on how to keep costs low, including tips for avoiding punitive interchange rates:
- Track the processor’s fees
- Interchange optimization
- Avoid — Processing expired credit cards, Duplicating transactions, Setting a minimum or maximum limit on your transactions, Charging a usage fee for credit card transactions, Displaying full account numbers on your receipts, Processing Internet transactions with your retail merchant account, Running your personal card through your merchant account, and Splitting one transaction into several smaller transactions
So, give it a read, and share it with others you think might find it useful. There simply aren’t many guides out there on this topic that are as worthwhile as this one: Credit Card Processing Guide for Small Businesses – The Simple Dollar.
UPDATE 2/17/17 — I spoke to Jennifer at the City of Chicago, and she was able to answer many of my outstanding questions. I’ve updated the original post with these edits.
UPDATE 2/12/17 — a retail client highly recommends buying bags wholesale from Howard Packaging in Skokie; her sales rep is Marc Moder. She says, “My vendor is charging the tax… I will happily refer anyone to them. The owner of the company apparently loves dealing with small businesses and undercutting Uline prices.”
I’m all for taxation as a way to effect public policy. But it has to be manageable. It’s amazing how challenging it can be to follow the rules for collecting and remitting a particular tax. Take the City of Chicago’s new “checkout bag tax”, for example. Great idea — encourage folks to bring their own bags by making it more expensive to use a bag given to them by the store.
This new tax replaces a ban on “flimsy” plastic bags which targeted chain stores, who quickly found a loophole in providing higher-quality “reusable” plastic bags. But now it affects paper as well as plastic, and small business as well as big box chains. (See a great DNA Info article on the topic, here.)
And unfortunately, the rules surrounding this new ordinance are complex, and for most businesses, will be impossible to follow to the letter.
Here’s what I understand about how it’s supposed to work (please note that I’m not an expert and don’t work for the city — but unlike most folks, I forced myself to read the entire ordinance and all the information I could get my hands on, as well as called the City of Chicago’s Department of Finance to get clarification):
(Steps One and Two are to get retailers “caught up” with the tax for bags that are already in stock.)
1. For starters, each retailer must count all their bags — paper AND plastic — in stock at the end of day on January 31, 2017.
2. Then retailers pay the tax in advance on this existing inventory.
Supposedly, licensed retailers were mailed a “Floor Tax Return” by the City before December 31, 2016. If you did not receive one, but you do use bags, email revenuedatabase@cityofchicago.
A couple of important notes when filling out this return —
a) Once they get a copy of the return to you, you’ll see that you have to include your “Department of Finance Tax Account Number”. This is located in the bottom-left corner of your business license, under the mayor’s signature.
b) On Page 1, Section 1, Line 1, where it asks for the number of checkout bags on-hand, only note the number of bags that a) you intend to use in the City (if you sell at conventions in the suburbs, for example, don’t count those), and b) don’t fall under one of the exceptions (e.g., separating frozen goods, produce or bulk items, household products; selling to SNAP recipients — see #6 below).
c) If you’ve called your bag wholesaler and have determined that they either do or do not intend to charge the city bag tax moving forward, it’s a good idea to note this information on the bottom of Page 1 of the Floor Tax Return, in Section 2, where they ask for the wholesaler’s information. The city will be following up with these vendors, trying to convince them to charge the tax.
Fill out and mail in the Floor Tax Return with a payment of 5-cents per bag by March 3, 2017 (7-cent tax minus a 2-cent credit for your troubles). It’s a $100 fine if filed late — even if you had zero bags in stock at that point (but you do use them); even if your store did not sell or use checkout bags prior to February 1, 2017 (but you plan to in the future); and even if the store decides NOT to use any bags moving forward (but you used to). If you didn’t use bags before the tax and won’t use them moving forward, you’re exempt from filing the form.
The floor tax return, site schedules (a page for each of the retailer’s various locations — must be filled out even if there is only one), and payment must be mailed to:
Chicago Department of Finance
City Hall, Room 107
121 North LaSalle Street
Chicago, IL 60602
(The rest of the steps are how this will work moving forward.)
3. Wholesalers of paper AND/OR plastic bags (not retailers) must register with the City by February 1, 2017.
4. Wholesalers of paper AND/OR plastic bags (not retailers) must charge their customers (the retailers) 7-cents-per-bag minus a 2-cent credit for the retailer’s effort, and remit that 5-cents-per-bag to the City using Form 2737. (I don’t know of any clients who received this, and I cannot find a copy online; I presume the City only sends it out if they determine you are a bag wholesaler.)
5. The retailers pay this net 5-cents-per-bag tax as part of the invoices from the wholesalers for buying paper AND/OR plastic bags.
(This is where it gets complicated.)
6. There are a million exceptions for bags that are exempt from the tax — so the retailer will need to apply to the wholesaler for a credit for each of these exceptions, to be applied to the next invoice — but how in the world are they going to be able to track them or document them in case of a City audit? Examples include:
Paper and plastic bags ordinarily intended and designed for use by customers inside a store to:
– package loose bulk items, such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, grains, candy, cookies or small hardware items
– contain or wrap frozen foods, meat or fish, whether prepackaged or not
– contain or wrap flowers, potted plants or other damp items
– segregate food or merchandise that could damage or contaminate other food or merchandise when placed together in a bag
– contain unwrapped prepared foods or bakery goods
As well as:
– plastic bags with a retail price of at least fifty cents ($0.50) each
– bags that are used to carry items purchased with SNAP (food stamps)
Retailers should take a credit for these tax-exempt paper and plastic bags on the next bill received from their wholesalers. The wholesaler in turn should claim a credit for the tax amount refunded to their retailers on the next monthly payment to the City. On this topic, the City says, “It shall be presumed that checkout bags sold or used by wholesalers and stores are subject to the tax imposed under this chapter until the contrary is established. The burden of proving that such checkout bags are not taxable hereunder shall be upon the person so claiming.”
7. The retailer is permitted to pass along the 7-cents-per-bag tax to the end consumer, in which case the bag tax needs to be stated separately on the receipt to the consumer; I recommend that retailers work with their accountants or bookkeepers to make sure this is set up correctly in their POS systems. The City has provided a lovely placard to post for your customers so they understand what’s going on.
(Remember, this is a 7-cent tax minus a 2-cent credit for the retailer’s troubles, so the amount collected from consumers is 7-cents, but the amount remitted to wholesale bag sellers or, in many cases, directly to the City, is a net 5-cents.)
8. However, the retailer may choose to absorb the cost themselves, in which case it does not have to be stated separately on the receipt.
(This is where it gets even more complicated.)
9. However, either way, it is the retailer’s responsibility to make sure that their wholesalers who sell them bags are in fact charging them the bag tax. But this has a couple serious drawbacks:
(a) If the retailer buys bags online or in a non-traditional outlet, the chances are pretty low that the wholesaler will be registered to collect and remit sales tax, leaving the retailer in the position where they have to do all of it voluntarily, filing Form 2737 with the City, which is even more time-consuming than the rules and process I noted above.
(Note: if you are a retailer in this situation, you must contact the City of Chicago’s Business Contact Center at 312-747-4747 or by e-mail at RevenueDatabase@cityofchicago.org to register to collect and remit the bag tax. However, I was told by the City Department of Finance that they would prefer not to have thousands of small businesses registering with them; they’d rather convince the wholesalers to charge the tax. They said if you don’t receive an affidavit from the City asking you to register, you’re off the hook as long as you’ve declared your wholesaler to them on the Floor Tax Return, step #2 above.)
However, to be safe — in the case where your wholesaler refuses to charge the tax — I recommend switching vendors. A client has recommended Howard Packaging in Skokie as one who both charges the tax and values working with small businesses.
(b) If the retailer isn’t passing the tax along to customers, then the entire point of the tax — to create an incentive for consumers to bring their own bags — is moot. It will just be a revenue-raiser for the City and nothing more.
Supposedly, there are ways to pay this tax through aldermanic offices and chambers of commerce (I will be shocked if this turns out to be true — please let me know in the comments section below if you hear of it), and those same groups have free reusable “ChiBags” available for retailers to give away to customers throughout February and March.
For the record, other non-taxable examples of bags and bag usage include:
– bags provided by a dine-in or take-out restaurant to contain food or drink purchased by the restaurant’s customers
– bags provided by a pharmacist to contain prescription drugs
– bags sold in packages containing multiple bags intended for use as garbage bags, pet waste bags or yard waste bags
– bags of any type that customers bring to a store for their own use or to carry away from the store goods that are not placed in a bag provided by the store
– newspaper bags
– dry cleaning or garment bags
– plastic liners that are permanently affixed, or designed and intended to be permanently affixed, to the inside of a particular bag
And if you’re interested in the history of this fiasco, as well as how it affects small businesses, contributes to income inequality, and lines the pockets of the city and of big box stores — well, there’s lots of that here:
– Excellent “DNA Info” article on the topic
– Daily Herald article discussing policy matters
– Fuller Tax Blog “Complete Guide” to the bag tax
– Chicago Tribune article
The Cook County Board has approved a 1-percentage-point sales tax increase to bail out the county worker pension system. This increase is effective January 1, 2016.
This means that small businesses in Cook County — which includes the City of Chicago — need to make plans to update their POS and sales tax systems so that they don’t get caught charging the old, lower rate to customers, but paying the new, higher rate to IDOR. It’s surprising how often I see this happen, so: businesses, mark your calendars! Accountants, reach out to your clients! A 1% spread over the course of a month or a quarter could mean a lot of cash out-of-pocket for companies, especially retail stores, that do not plan ahead.
As for why this is happening:
“The immediate problems is pensions. The city of Chicago alone has a $20 billion unfunded liability and when Moody’s Investors Service dropped the city’s debt rating to junk, it forced $2.2 billion in accelerated debt payments. So Cook County has to borrow more money now at higher interest rates to pay those newly due bills AND it has to increase sales taxes to that whopping 10.25% rate effective in January to help pay the interest on it all.”
As for what it means for the poor, and for our communities… well, this is entirely my own opinion, so feel free to stop reading here if what you wanted to know about were the ramifications for accounting.
But, in my opinion, it’s important to remember that sales tax hikes, unlike income taxes, affect even the poorest among us. If you don’t make a lot of money, then you have to spend 100% of it just to keep going. That means 100% of it is subject to sales tax. It’s not the same for someone with disposable income, who can choose not to buy something because sales tax makes it too expensive.
Furthermore, an over-ten-percent tax rate hurts the local economy, causing businesses to avoid locating here and customers to avoid shopping here, choosing the suburbs instead. (This is not just my opinion — studies have shown this is exactly what happens: http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-cook-county-tax-0719-biz-20150717-story.html#page=1 )
Lastly, this hike is entirely to shore up a pension fund that they’ve known for years was underfunded. An emergency measure now, when this is obviously something that bad planning caused in the first place, smacks of crappy governance.
But that’s just my opinion. The important take-away as a small business owner or accountant? UPDATE YOUR POINT OF SALE AND SALES TAX SYSTEMS BEFORE JANUARY 1.
In case you’re not sure what this conference is all about, please see my blog post on QuickBooks-related training from a couple months ago. This conference is one of the biggies!
I was both disappointed and relieved when, while at a Point-of-Sale Software (POS) experts panel discussion a few months ago, I went up to the microphone and said that I hadn’t found a single online POS system that functioned properly with regard to its integration with QuickBooks — and the answer I got was, “that’s because there isn’t one; not yet.”
The unanimous reaction among the experts was that QuickBooks POS for Desktop is really the only system that truly and fully integrates with QuickBooks accounting software (there are other POS packages out there that integrate functionally, though not as fully — but they are also all desktop systems that work with QuickBooks desktop software). None of the zillions of online offerings (Square, Vend and the like) have functioning integrations (although they claim to), leaving QuickBooks Online as a less-attractive option for those who depend on POS data. (This doesn’t mean it can’t be done — I have plenty of clients for whom I have written up a recurring periodic journal entry that they book manually, or we’ve hired a developer to write a script to do the job. But these are time-consuming or expensive options by comparison.)
Armed with this knowledge, I must say I was thrilled to read the reviews when the newest version of QuickBooks POS for Desktop was released. They’ve apparently increased stability and reintroduced formerly-removed features (that actually work this time around). For those clients of mine who will have to make the shift away from QB 2012 this year (see my post on support ending in May 2015), I’m going to recommend they upgrade to the newest POS version as well.
Check out David Glantz’s review, here: QuickBooks Point of Sale Desktop 12.0 – from “QuickBooks and Beyond“.
I’m looking forward to sharing more about the amazing experiences I had at the back-to-back accounting conferences I just attended. However, one short post in the meanwhile:
It is SUCH a relief to find out that so many of the workarounds I’ve created for my clients — most notably, recurring daily journal entries to capture data from online Point of Sale systems (although there were at least two other topics) — aren’t because I was just “missing something” or confused about how these systems (Square, Vend, etc.) work. The fact is, they simply don’t function properly. The “integrations” with QuickBooks Online aren’t what they purport themselves to be, and I have it on good authority that the most expert POS consultants in the world are using the same exact workarounds that I thought I’d invented. It may not be “good” news, per se, but it’s such a relief!