March and September 2017 especially strong months for collections, 2017 fiscal year report shows
Sarasota County’s Tourist Development Tax (TDT) collections increased 6.55% in the 2017 fiscal year compared to the 2016 fiscal year, and through January, they continue to beat the FY17 figures.
In presenting the 2017 report for the TDT — or “bed tax” revenue — to the county’s Tourist Development Council (TDC) on March 15, Assistant Sarasota County Tax Collector Sherri Smith pointed out that collections for FY18 “are already up almost $750,000.”
In January, the Tax Collector’s Office latest monthly report says, total TDT revenue was $2,578,669.60, higher than the January 2017 figure by $163,499.19.
In the 2017 fiscal year, Smith noted, revenue for March was more than $3 million, while TDT collections for three other months — January, February and April — exceeded $2 million. All other months ended up with figures higher than $1 million, she pointed out.
The March 2017 total of $3,530,937.62, she said, “was the most we have ever collected in a single month.”
September, she added, was “especially strong,” thanks to the World Rowing Championships held at Nathan Benderson Park.
The September 2017 total was $1,077,317.81, compared to $857,979.46 in September 2016.
“Considering we had a major hurricane,” and, at one point, county leaders were debating whether to go ahead with the Championships, the numbers the event produced prove that such undertakings “really benefit our community,” Commissioner Charles Hines, who chairs the TDC, noted.
He was referring to Hurricane Irma, which struck on Sept. 10, 2017. The World Rowing Championships began on Sept. 24, 2017, after county workers cleared out storm debris and took care of minor damage.
Proceeding with the annual report, Smith also told the TDC members, “Condos continued to account for the largest number” of accommodations reporting TDT revenue in the 2017 fiscal year, representing 41.60% of all units. The hotel/motel category reflected 34.08% of the units, she added; however, the hotel/ motel category exceeded condominiums in total revenue reported.
The collections from hotels and motels, she said, made up 45.2% of the total in the 2017 fiscal year, compared to condos, with 41.72%. Three new hotels opened in the county last fiscal year, she added, while one smaller facility closed. The Tax Collector’s Office report notes that the new hotels have 485 rooms.
Yet another hotel has opened this month, Smith said, with several more “on the horizon.”
The FY17 report also points out that the category with the biggest increase in accounts was houses, with the number climbing from 1,735 to 1,825.
Overall, the total number of units collecting the bed tax increased by 17,240, up almost 9%.
Smith explained that many of the dwelling units are handled by management companies, instead of the property owners themselves. The total number of TDT accounts at the end of December 2017 was 8,996, up 0.25% compared to the figure for 2016.
“The number of delinquent accounts has remained consistently low over the last several years,” Smith pointed out. Each month, staff members in the Tax Collector’s Office contact every account that has not filed a report by the due date, she emphasized. Most of those situations are resolved within 30 days, she added.
Kenni Gregg and Nicole Brown are the two customer service representatives who “do an outstanding job” of dealing with all the TDT issues in the Tax Collector’s Office, Smith told the TDC members.
Gregg and Brown call and send emails whenever an account is past due in turning over revenue, Smith continued. “Most of the time, that works.” However, if those measures fail, she said, they send a letter to the manager of the specific account, warning that a “sign will be placed on [the] property,” letting the public know of the delinquent status. That threat, Smith added, typically “gets [delinquent accounts] moving.”
Only four accounts continue to be delinquent, she told the council members: one is in bankruptcy; one is on a partial payment plan; and staff is “actively seeking collection” with the remaining two.
Additionally, she noted, through enforcement measures, staff was able to collect $197,000 in overdue assessments last fiscal year.
Airbnb generating its share of TDT revenue
Smith also pointed out that, thanks to the County Commission and Airbnb signing an agreement in the spring of 2017, collections from May 1 through Sept. 30, 2017 resulted in $310,755 in revenue from people who hosted guests through the internet accommodations service.
So far this fiscal year, Smith added, Airbnb collections have totaled $355,700. She emphasized that that is the revenue from Oct. 1, 2017 through Jan. 31.
In response to a question, Smith said that Airbnb does not report the addresses of its hosts to the Tax Collector’s Office. However, she added, if staff finds through research on the internet that someone has been renting property through Airbnb without paying the tax due to the county, staff can pursue the amount of revenue “and charge … penalties.”
Characterizing Gregg and Brown as “our little bird dogs,” Smith noted that they constantly check accommodations listings on Airbnb’s platform and other internet services, as well as newspaper listings. They can use photos of houses sometimes — and even license plates of vehicles in driveways — to identify a property that is being rented to tourists but whose owner is not paying the bed tax, she pointed out.
At the conclusion of Smith’s report, Venice City Council Member Bob Daniels, who represents that municipality on the TDC, told his colleagues that he feels “if there’s a penny out there, [staff members of the Tax Collector’s Office] get it or get a signed IOU. … They are on it like flies.”
Daniels added, “I have nothing but praise for the abilities that we have with this department.”
Smith did note that Tax Collector Barbara Ford-Coates had been scheduled to make the presentation to the TDC, but Ford-Coates ended up with conflict, so Smith took her place.
Other January tourism figures
Along with the climb in TDT revenue year-over-year for January, Visit Sarasota County — the county’s tourism office — reported more positive figures for that month.
In a March 7 email to community leaders, Visit Sarasota County President Virginia Haley wrote that “so far, our marketing and sales efforts are paying off in filling the new hotel rooms in our market.”
“The number of visitors to Sarasota in January 2018 rose by 1.5% to 80,100,” she continued. “While hotel occupancy was flat to last January at 76%, the average room rate rose by 3% to $183.93.”
She added, “A reflection of the new hotel rooms, the number of room nights sold in January 2018 grew by 3.1% over last January.
Finally, Haley pointed out, “We had very strong business from Florida, the Southeast and Northeast for the period October 2017 through January 2018. Canadian and [United Kingdom] business remains flat [compared] to last year with a 2.7% drop from Central Europe.”