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Cities and Towns Must Update General Business License Ordinances ASAP!

July 16, 2018  by  Toni Nelson
Category:  Business Licenses and Taxes

Cities and Towns Must Update General Business License Ordinances ASAP!

In April, I wrote a blog post discussing the requirements imposed by EHB 2005, adopted in 2017 and codified in chapter 35.90 RCW. That article included a draft of the model ordinance provisions that must be adopted by all cities and towns who have a “general business” license requirement by January 1, 2019 (unless you are currently a BLS partner city, in which case your deadline is October 17, 2018).

The final model business license ordinance has now been released, and the AWC staff who coordinated the City Business License task force presented its provisions on June 28 at the annual AWC conference in Yakima. It is now time for all cities and towns with general business license requirements to prepare for the adoption of these provisions.

What Is in the Final Model Business License Ordinance?

The “model ordinance” is not a comprehensive model ordinance, but it contains two required components that cities and towns must incorporate into their existing business license ordinances. The two components are as follows:

1. Cities and towns may only impose licensing requirements upon individuals or companies “engaging in business within the city,” as defined in the model ordinance. The ordinance also sets forth examples of activities that are considered “engaging in business,” as well as business activities that do not require licensing. The definition is based on the model ordinance for B&O taxes.

2. For businesses that engage in business within the city but are not physically located within the city, the ordinance establishes a minimum dollar threshold below which the businesses are partially or fully exempted from licensing requirements. The minimum threshold of business activity in the ordinance is $2,000, although cities may adopt a higher threshold if desired. Below this threshold, cities must either:

  • Exempt these businesses from the licensing requirements entirely, or
  • Require licensing, but at no cost to the businesses.

As your city legislative body will need to consider one of these two options prior to preparing the ordinance for adoption.

The final model has been modified a bit from our April blog post in response to the business community’s concerns over the threshold level set in the initial draft. As a result, the task force increased the threshold for exemption to $2,000 per year. The definition of “engaging in business” is unchanged from the initial draft provided in my April blog post and mirrors the definition found within the model B&O tax ordinance adopted by those cities that have a B&O tax requirement.

As noted earlier, cities and towns with general business licensing requirements must adopt the language from the model ordinance by January 1, 2019 (RCW 35.90.090). Any city or town that does not adopt the model ordinance by the deadline is prohibited from enforcing its general business licensing requirements until it adopts the model ordinance provisions.

Current BLS partner cities must adopt the language by October 17, 2018 (RCW 35.90.070), and provide notification to BLS in order to maintain its business licensing program on January 1, 2019. The statute requires that notice be received by BLS a minimum of 75 days prior to effective date for “all changes that affect in any way who must obtain a license, who is exempt from obtaining a license, or the amount or method of determining any fee for the issuance or renewal of the license.”  Both provisions of the model ordinance will require the 75-day notification to BLS.

Who Will Administer Your Business License Program?

Now that the provisions of model business license ordinance have been decided, there is one remaining consideration: Who will administer your general licensing program?

EHB 2005 (chapter 35.90 RCW) requires that all cities and towns partner with either FileLocal by 2020 or with the state’s Business Licensing System (BLS) by 2022. These two “one-stop” licensing portals serve multiple jurisdictions. BLS is part of the state Department of Revenue, while FileLocal was created by an interlocal agreement between several larger cities in the Puget Sound region. By the end of 2022, businesses will be able to obtain local business licenses for any city in the state via one or two websites.

The deadline for partnering with FileLocal is July 1, 2020 — meaning that businesses must be able to use FIleLocal to renew or apply for their business license within your jurisdiction by that date — and for those cities that opt to partner with the BLS, you will be phased into the system between January 1, 2018, and December 31, 2022, in conjunction with the BLS Local Business Licensing Partnership Plan.

Deciding between the two administrative options will depend a lot upon the size of your jurisdiction and whether your city is considering future B&O taxing options.

Reviewing Your Other Business License Provisions

Although the changes in the new model ordinance only address a couple specific provisions of your business licensing ordinance, many cities and towns may not have reviewed their business license requirements in a long time. While you are amending your current business license ordinance to comply with chapter 35.90 RCW, we suggest you take the time to review the rest of your business license requirements and fees to make sure they still meet your jurisdiction’s needs.

Want to Learn More?

Check out our new webpage, Business Licenses and Fees. It provides a brief overview of business licensing, including the changes imposed by EHB 2005, along with information about regulatory business licenses and revenue-generating licenses, or “head taxes,” which have also been in the news lately.

AWC will also be providing a free webinar, Prepare to Streamline Your Business License, on Wednesday, August 8 at 10 AM.

If you have questions about the new business licensing requirements, please feel free to contact me at or (206) 625-0916 x 109 or you can reach out to Maggie Douglas or Sheila Gall at AWC.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Toni Nelson

Toni worked with many local governments and authored numerous MRSC publications on budgeting, cash basis accounting and reporting, and the application of Washington State B.A.R.S. requirements. During her time at MRSC, she also conducted multiple trainings annually on similar subjects and was consider an expert in small city finance issues. She retired in 2020.



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