A small business owner has spoken out about what he describes as the “enormous gulf” between the federal government and SMEs, after spending more than 12 months attempting to have late fees that were attached to his annual review invoice voided.
Dennis Rutzou is the founder and director of Sydney-based Dennis Rutzou Public Relations and says he has paid his annual invoices from the Australian Securities and Investments Commission on time every year since founding his company in 1968.
However, he is now facing mounting late fees, after the regulator denied his claims for leniency based on his years of paying on time.
In November 2015, Rutzou’s accountant received an invoice in the mail from ASIC, which was forwarded on to Rutzou in December.
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The final due date for annual renewal invoices are within two months of the issue date, or around January 28 in the case of Rutzou’s business. By January Rutzou had still not received the invoice from his accountant, which he believes is due to the bill being lost amongst the Christmas mail rush.
When he finally received the invoice in March, Rutzou says he paid the invoice for $249 immediately, but by that time it had already accrued two $76 late fees.
In an appeal for leniency given his consistent track record of invoice payments, Rutzou contacted ASIC in an attempt to have the fees waived. But this was denied and Rutzou was told he should have been expecting the invoice and have chased it up when it it didn’t arrive.
“They told me I should have made a note in my diary, and I should have paid it anyway even if I didn’t have the invoice,” Rutzou tells SmartCompany.
“Enormous gulf” between government and SMEs
Rutzou believes his situation displays the “enormous gulf” between small business and the government.
“This would have taken less than five minutes to decide in the business world. For businesses it would have been, ‘here’s a customer who’s been loyal since 1968, of course, we’ll waive the fees’,” he says.
“I felt that after paying consistently for that length of time, they’d think, ‘he’s been a good customer’, and waive the fees. That’s what I was expecting to happen.”
Rutzou believes the “unyielding and highly legalistic” approach from the government indicates the disparity between its way of thinking, compared to “a small business operator battling to make a profit and stay in business”.
“Malcolm Turnbull says the government will encourage small business, but in reality, they don’t understand how we work at all. I could be speaking a foreign language,” he says.
“Every election politicians proclaim that they will abolish red tape and want to encourage small business. What a joke?”
In attempts to escalate the case and find “someone to exercise some discretion”, Rutzou first took the case to the office of Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman, which directed him to the Commonwealth Ombudsman.
When he found the Commonwealth Ombudsman of no help, Rutzou directed his inquiry to Kelly O’Dwyer, the minister for revenue and financial services, who he is awaiting a response from.
According to ASIC, Rutzou now owes a total of $637, which includes late fees on the 2016 invoice, plus an annual review payment for the current year. Rutzou says he is still determined to have the late fees waived.
“As far as I can see there are no protocols for leniency. I think there should be some possibility for discretions,” he says.
On its website, ASIC outlines the situations where a late fee may be waived. These includes complications from ASIC’s end or invoices or records damaged by fires, floods or natural disasters.
At 78 years old, Rutzou considers himself “semi-retired”. He currently operates his business as a one-man show, saying it provides enough income to support him and his wife and keep him from drawing a pension. At its peak, Rutzou’s company had 15 employees, but now he handles just a few accounts.
In a statement provided to to SmartCompany, ASIC said it only has the power to waive fees in “situations where circumstances exist that are outside the control of the applicant company or its representatives”.
The Commission also said it is an independent statutory authority, and “the Minister for Revenue and Financial Services is specifically precluded from giving ASIC a direction in relation to a specific case”.
“Additionally, the Minister for Finance has a broader discretion to waive amounts owing to the Commonwealth than is afforded to ASIC,” ASIC said.
SmartCompany contacted Minister O’Dwyer’s office for comment but did not receive a response prior to publication.