Higher fees finally approved on 4-1 vote
It took nearly 50 minutes on Nov. 6 for the majority of the Sarasota city commissioners to approve — on second reading — a new fee schedule for the vacation rental program operating on the barrier islands.
As City Manager Marlon Brown explained, the item was placed on the board’s agenda this week under the heading of Old Business because the first vote was not unanimous.
None of the board members this week had questions, but Commissioner Erik Arroyo — who cast the “No” vote during the initial reading on Sept. 5 — said he wanted to offer comments. Then he reiterated a number of points he made in September, including his opposition to raising fees that, he said, would be a burden to homeowners who are trying to make extra money by renting out rooms.
The solitary speaker during the public hearing, Diana Hamilton, rebuked the other commissioners. “There seems to be a misconception out there that people who have Airbnbs are making money hand-over-fist,” she said, adding that she knew of one Airbnb owner who had no guests the entire summer, “because it was pretty hot here.”
Yet, Hamilton continued, the owners “are still paying taxes, paying utilities, for the property to be maintained; yard work; all of that.”
She added, “What I heard last time I was here was ‘Hit ’em hard; make ’em pay. They need to really step up and give us some money because they are making money.’ ”
At the outset of the discussion again this week, Arroyo stressed that the primary problems city residents have cited with the vacation rental properties are noise, including disruptions late at night by guests on holiday; renters’ vehicles taking up numerous spots in neighborhoods; and garbage overflowing at curbsides. Instead of addressing those issues, Arroyo pointed out, city staff had proposed raising the fees for the vacation rental program.
“This is going to affect people who are … just small, getting started and trying to make a living in a world where everything has skyrocketed,” he emphasized.
Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch immediately asked for City Attorney Robert Fournier to clarify that the program does not apply to homeowner-occupied rentals.
Fournier confirmed that she was correct.
Then Ahearn-Koch added, “This is targeted at our city being able to recoup the money we spend in inspecting [houses] and creating the registry program to protect our neighborhoods and our communities from these massive hotel houses.”
The traditional Airbnb, Ahearn-Koch continued, is owner-occupied. The owner makes certain “there aren’t parties at 2 a.m.,” for example, she said. “This is really for the hotel house situation that we’re experiencing in our city, where you have eight-bedroom [structures with] eight en suite bathrooms [and] nobody is there to monitor parties [at 2 a.m.]”
The registration facet of the program, Ahearn-Koch stressed, enables city staff to make certain someone can be contacted 24 hours a day, seven days a week, if the music volume is too high and guests are doing cannonballs in the pool, for examples.
Multiple interruptions characterize exchanges between Arroyo and Brown
During the course of the discussion, Arroyo and Brown ended up interrupting each other multiple times over the new fees, including the requirement that the initial registration of a house for vacation rental purposes will rise from $250 to $500. Yet another focal point for Arroyo is the fact that, instead of a biennial renewal fee of $150, a yearly fee of $350 will be charged after that initial registration.
At one point, Arroyo accused Brown of advocating for policy, which Brown disputed.
“I’m trying to make sense of the discussion,” Brown said. “It’s up to the commission to decide whether they want to do it or not,” he added, referring to final approval of the ordinance. “I’m trying to make sense of what the cost is to a commercial business.”
“Same discussion we had last time,” Arroyo replied. “Always thinking about how to make a bigger ship … and grow departments instead of how can we make it a leaner department.”
“Why should taxpayers —” Brown began when Arroyo interrupted him to say, “They shouldn’t.” Brown finished his sentence by adding, “pay for a business that’s making thousands and millions of dollars?”
“Why should we put it on these people’s backs?” Brown asked.
Arroyo stressed that staff should be working on ways “to minimize the cost, and we did not do that.”
“How do you know we haven’t done that?” Brown responded. When he tried to point out that the city has only two staff members responsible for handling the program, Arroyo interrupted Brown again: “We’re hiring two more.”
“We have not done anything yet,” Brown replied. “It would be up to the commission if they want to add staff. That is a commission decision.”
“I’m trying to have the discussion right now with the commission,” Arroyo said. “It appears I’m having it with you for some reason.”
“Commissioner,” Brown responded, “you turned to me—”
Arroyo cut him off again: “I have not asked you a question. I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything. I’m just pointing out some concerns. This program will grow, and it will grow, and it will cost a lot of people — hundreds of people — more money that they are not paying right now in the city.”
Earlier during the discussion, Brown had indicated that the $500 initial registration fee would be a small amount for owners of the “hotel houses” on the barrier islands.
Vice Mayor Liz Alpert asked Arroyo at one point how much he pays in annual dues to the Florida Bar Association. (Both she and Arroyo are attorneys.)
When he replied that the amount is $350, Alpert emphasized that that is per year. “A lot of lawyers can’t afford that $350 a year,” she said, “and I don’t think the Florida Bar thinks that they should not have to pay it.”
Referring to the city’s vacation rental program, Alpert stressed, “This is the cost of doing business. “[Three hundred fifty dollars] a year for a business is not an undue burden on anybody who has a business,” she noted of the new annual renewal fee. “If they can’t afford $350 a year,” she added, “I can’t imagine they are doing business.”
Moreover, Alpert pointed out, “The idea that we shouldn’t be putting in some safeguards and making sure this program operates the way it should — any other business in the city has to pay to operate in the city. This is no different.”
Alpert was referring to the program’s provisions for inspections. During the Sept. 5 hearing, Hannah Chabica, a code compliance specialist, noted that the inspections cover issues such as pool and fire safety and ensure that the required information about the owners or managers of each property is kept up-to-date, so the appropriate individual could be contacted if a problem arose.
Further, Diane Kennedy, the city’s code compliance manager, noted during that discussion that since the program has been in effect — it launched on Jan. 3, 2022 — staff has found many residences where illegal work has taken place. “Once we do the inspection, [people] go in and take out the pool alarm, or they take down the baby barrier,” she continued. “We have various safety [measures] that we’re looking for.”
Kennedy stressed that ensuring safety of guests is the rationale for the inspections.
Yet, during her public comments, Hamilton told the commissioners, “The idea that you’ll go in and inspect people’s properties — I’m not exactly sure what the point is. You can claim it’s for safety [but] I think you’re just being nosy; you want to see what’s going on and are they really taking care of their properties.”
After making the motion to approve the ordinance on second reading, Commissioner Ahearn-Koch emphasized that the vacation rental program has to pay for itself.
Data provided to the board members in September put the total annual expenditures for the city to operate the program at $130,688.99. Yet, Chabica noted then, the revenue generated in the first year was $36,352. A chart provided to the commissioners said that if user fees were to cover all of the expenses, the annual renewal for the owner of a vacation rental property would need to be $968.06.