DUNEDIN — A Dunedin commissioner wants the city to refund more than $3,600 in business taxes that officials say may have been improperly collected from local gun dealers over several decades.
But first, officials will have to figure out whether the fees were indeed levied in violation of state law.
The issue came to light as Florida cities this summer scrambled to comply by Oct. 1 with a new state law that threatens county and city officials with fines of up to $5,000 and removal from office if they try to enforce local firearms ordinances.
A similar state law has actually been around since 1987. But because there were no penalties on the books, it went largely unenforced — including in Dunedin, where officials have long charged local firearms dealers $150 and gunsmiths $45 in annual business taxes.
Those fees are potentially illegal because the 1987 state law prohibited cities from enacting any gun regulations other than those spelled out by state statute, city attorney Tom Trask said.
To avoid conflict with the state, Dunedin officials voted last month to wipe all language from their local ordinances that attempts to regulate firearms. Trask said residents are still protected by multiple state laws, including ones that forbid firearms in government buildings, prohibit their display or discharge in public, and bar their sale during states of emergency.
Under Florida's statute of limitations, Trask said gun dealers are technically entitled to up to four years' worth of refunds. But Commissioner David Carson said he believes full refunds are in order for anyone who can provide canceled checks or receipts.
"I know you said we're only legally liable for four years and that's all they could basically sue for. But I think there's a bigger question here of . . . morals," Carson told Trask at a recent public meeting.
"If we knew and we passed a city ordinance that is in direct violation of state law, just because it didn't have any teeth in it, that's wrong," he said. "We should refund the entire amount and even talk about interest potentially."
At least three Dunedin businesses — D&D Sales, Florida Survivalist and Keller Rifles — are eligible for refunds, according to a city memo. The matter is scheduled for discussion at next week's commission meeting.
However, Trask on Wednesday sent commissioners a Florida Attorney General's opinion that said business taxes for gun dealers are legal so long as they're not higher than those levied upon other business owners.
A clerk in Dunedin's planning office said this week that he believed gun dealers were charged at a higher rate than other businesses. Neither he nor his supervisor could be reached late Wednesday for comment.
A firearms dealer since 1964, D&D Sales owner Bill Douglas said he began paying Dunedin an annual dealer fee of about $35 in the 1980s. He said it increased to $150 in 1996 because, he was told, Dunedin wanted to stay on par with other jurisdictions.
Douglas alone has paid at least $2,346, based on receipts he has dating to 1995. The unnecessary local gun fees, he said, "significantly impacted" his business, especially considering the roughly $8,300 he also paid in required federal licensing fees during the same time period.
He said reimbursement of the actual fees that were collected illegally is the "fair thing to do."
"I know it wasn't the current commission or staff's fault. They had to go back (and find the error), so I know they'll do the right thing."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153.