Does every artist need a business license?

You have your brush in hand, ready to start a painting that you hope to sell. Or maybe you're sitting at your computer, fantasizing about penning the next great poem, play or novel. Perhaps you want to go downtown and strum your guitar, hoping someone might drop a dollar into your open guitar case.

But wait.

Do you need to buy an Ashland business license first?

No one knows for sure.

A strict reading of Ashland's business license law says that any adult engaged in an activity with an intent to make a profit needs a license.

"If someone is strumming a banjo on the sidewalk, are they performing for a profit? I don't know," said Ashland Finance and Administrative Services Director Lee Tuneberg.

Ashland has no threshold for the amount of money a person has to make, or even a requirement that the person actually realize a profit.

Tuneberg said city staff are awaiting more direction from the Ashland City Council about business license rules. The council is considering requiring vendors that rent booth space to buy a license, too. A public hearing is planned in February but no date has been set yet.

Tuneberg's staff members send out about a dozen notices a year to people who are operating businesses in town without a license. Tuneberg said the notices are generally sent out after the city receives complaints, or if an unlicensed business activity comes to the attention of city staff.

Tuneberg himself turned in information about a roving window-washer who came to his house offering cleaning services, but who didn't have a business license.

As evidence that a person is engaged in unlicensed business activity, city staff will look for TV, radio and newspaper ads, door hangers, ads on the side of a car, signs and other forms of advertising. They haven't gone to the level of checking out all the fliers people post on bulletin boards around town offering goods and services, Tuneberg said.

People are allowed to sell their own personal household items, as long as the sales method — such as a garage sale — lasts less than four days a year.

City Councilor Russ Silbiger, who manages his and others' investments from home, said he has a business license and believes people making art at home should also have licenses if they ever intend to sell their work.

He said he's not concerned that artists and musicians generally spend far more money on supplies, equipment and instruments than they will ever recoup.

"Every entrepreneurial business is a risky business and a costly venture," he said.

Regardless of whether the city starts pressuring artists, writers and musicians to buy business licenses, the government is trying to make getting a license more palatable for one-person businesses, including people working from home.

Many people believe Ashland has a high number of home-based businesses flying under the radar.

The City Council is considering whether to lower the license application fee, which can run up to $110, to $75 to encourage more one-person businesses to buy a license. The annual renewal fee for one person would fall from $75 to $50.

"We're trying to get better information from people doing business," Tuneberg said. "People ask me, 'How many businesses do we have in Ashland? How many people are employed?' I don't have that information at this point."

The City Council is also considering whether to require nonprofit organizations to obtain business licenses, although they would not be required to pay fees. They would need to provide information about the number of people they employ.

In the 2007-2008 fiscal year, there were 2,335 business license applications and renewals, which generated $201,259 in revenues for the city government, Tuneberg said.

Application and renewal numbers fell to 2,131 for the 2009-2010 fiscal year, and revenues dipped to $196,953, he said.

So far this fiscal year, which ends June 30, applications and renewals are up slightly to 2,161, generating about $190,000. Although the number of business licenses is higher so far, revenues are lower because businesses seem to have fewer employees and to be operating for a shorter duration, Tuneberg said.

Ashland imposes extra $5 to $10 fees per employee for businesses with more than two employees.

Money from the licenses goes into the city's general fund for the Ashland Police Department, Ashland Fire & Rescue and other services.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or

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