He launched his private lobbying firm a year ago, but new Tacoma City Councilman Robert Thoms has yet to obtain the city license required for a for-profit business in Tacoma.
Records show The Navigation Group, the political consulting firm Thoms operates from his Stadium District home, has yet to register as a business with Tacoma’s Tax and License Division and does not possess a city business license. Nor does the firm hold two other required permits needed to operate in Tacoma and Olympia, where much of Thoms’ consulting work occurs.
On Jan. 15, the City Council selected Thoms from a pool of seven applicants to serve the final year of former Councilman-turned-state Rep. Jake Fey’s second term. Two days after the selection, Thoms formally registered as a candidate to run for the District 2 council seat when it comes up for election later this year.
Earlier this month, The News Tribune checked the city’s online business records databases and made a formal request to the City of Tacoma, seeking licensing and tax records for The Navigation Group. Neither search yielded any records for Thoms or his consulting firm.
Reached Monday, Thoms referred questions about the required paperwork to John Jolibois, Thoms’ business partner and the firm’s chief operating officer. Thoms added he thinks his firm has obtained all necessary city business permits.
“I believe we did, yes,” Thoms said. “I know we hadn’t done anything until just this past month, but I’m pretty sure we did all of the reporting on the state and federal levels, so I think we did.”
Jolibois separately told The News Tribune Tuesday the firm is still trying to work out all of its licensing details, but neither he nor Thoms meant to skirt any requirements.
“It wasn’t that we want to rip anyone off or that we’re being malicious,” Jolibois said.
Rather, he and Thoms have yet to figure out exactly where to base their consulting operations before “we nail all the details down,” Jolibois said.
“We have to be transparent and accountable for what we do, but what’s hard for us is we don’t have a brick-and-mortar office,” he added. “We’re consultants. I do more work out of my car than anywhere else. I do most of my work out of Starbucks or Tully’s.”
Thoms’ firm, which both he and Jolibois described as a new business just getting its footing, may not be required to pay Tacoma business and occupation taxes at this point. Only firms grossing $250,000 or more are subject to the city’s B&O tax.
But under city law, it should hold an active city business license – a yearly requirement that comes with an annual $90 fee.
“Anyone who has a business located in the city or who comes into the city to conduct business needs a business license,” said city Tax and License Division Manager Danielle Larson, speaking generally of Tacoma’s requirements.
Depending on the circumstances, a business that hasn’t registered or obtained a city business license could face late filing penalties of up to $50, a $250 civil fine or, in rare instances, be forced to shut down, Larson said.
She added that businesses should have a license in hand once they start business activities in Tacoma, but the city typically provides a 30-day grace period to get licensed before issuing penalties.
Similar requirements hold true in Olympia, where Thoms and Jolibois do lobbying and other consulting as part of their work. The Navigation Group doesn’t have an office in Olympia, but that city’s code says it still should have a business license because it conducts business there. But as of Monday, the firm didn’t possess a license in Olympia either, according to Olympia’s tax and license division.
Because The Navigation Group lists Thoms’ home address in Tacoma as the site of the business on a state registration, Thoms also should possess a “home occupation license” from Tacoma. The city-required regulatory permit, which authorizes home-based business activities, is issued for a one-time fee of $75, Larson said.
Jolibois noted that because he and Thoms are new to running a business and The Navigation Group’s work crosses several jurisdictions, “it hasn’t been easy.”
“With all the filings required, it gets confusing,” he said. “You don’t want to file in a bunch of different places, because that adds up – 100 bucks here, 100 bucks there. We kind of wanted to see how things ended up as we grew, but we want to be accountable.”
In a recent interview, Thoms, who previously had worked as a lobbyist with Tacoma-based political consultants Thompson & Smitch, said he started his own firm after returning to town from a year-long assignment in the Navy reserves in 2011. The 42-year-old former aide to Democratic U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell partnered in the endeavor with his friend, Jolibois, a former Fircrest city councilman who also has worked for Democratic U.S. Reps. Adam Smith and Norm Dicks.
Records show they registered the limited liability partnership with the state on Feb. 28, 2012, for a Unified Business Identifier or UBI – a nine-digit registration number that identifies entities engaging in business activities.
The firm is not registered with the state Department of Revenue, but an agency spokesman noted that Thoms and Jolibois each hold a license as a “sole proprietor” for individual consulting companies that were previously established and could use them to pay taxes due. The DOR is barred from disclosing whether The Navigation Group has paid any taxes to date, DOR spokesman Mike Gowrylow said. But he noted businesses with less than $28,000 in annual taxable income don’t generally need to file state tax returns because they’re likely under the threshold triggering state B&O tax payments.
The firm only recently registered with the state’s Public Disclosure Commission. Records show Jolibois first submitted on behalf of The Navigation Group a required lobbying registration on Jan. 22 – a week after the Tacoma City Council appointed Thoms to fill a vacant council seat.
While his firm had been operating prior to that date, Thoms said it mostly did public relations work – not lobbying activity that required state registration.
Thoms has said his primary client in 2012 was the South Sound Military and Communities Partnership, a group of local governments working to improve regional planning with Joint Base Lewis-McChord, for which he coordinated meetings and initiatives.
His current clients include the Sole Source Community Hospital Coalition and Tacoma Public Schools, Thoms said earlier this month. The firm’s website also lists as clients Foss Waterway Seaport, Metro Parks Tacoma; San Francisco State University, iQ Technologies and General Plastics Manufacturing Co.Lewis Kamb: 253-597-8542