County Commission determined to forge agreement with Airbnb before World Rowing Championships

Board wants to ensure all property owners who host visitors for the event pay Tourist Development Tax

Benderson Park will host the World Rowing Championships in 2017. File photo
Benderson Park will host the World Rowing Championships in 2017. File photo

With the World Rowing Championships expected to bring tens of thousands of visitors to Sarasota County in September 2017, the County Commission wants to do all it can to finalize an agreement with Airbnb to ensure it does not lose Tourist Development Tax revenue on home rentals through that online home rental service.

Rob Lewis, director of community and intergovernmental relations for the county, will appear before the commission this month to provide an update on that topic, Deputy County Administrator Steve Botelho has announced.

In a Nov. 15 email to Commissioner Charles Hines, Lewis wrote of the Airbnb matter, “Anticipating it to become a potential issue I will be bringing to the Board on Dec 14 a recommendation that the Commission approve a revision to the Sarasota County 2017 State Legislative Program ‘opposing any preemption of local government to collect tourist development tax or related fees and revenue for Airbnb booking transactions.’”

In the meantime, Deputy County Attorney Kathleen F. Schneider told The Sarasota News Leader in a Nov. 22 email that she and her staff “are still gathering information. No recommendation by our office has been formulated.”

Commissioner Christine Robinson. File photo
Commissioner Christine Robinson. File photo

Commissioner Christine Robinson — who left the board on Nov. 21 as a result of term limits — cited the urgency of the issue during the board’s regular meeting on Oct. 25. “We really need to try and get this resolved quickly,” she said, “because that’s a lot of money we are going to be losing if we don’t get this straightened out [prior to the World Rowing Championships].” The event will be held from Sept. 23 to Oct. 1, 2017 at Nathan Benderson Park. Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County, has said the Championships could bring about 42,000 people to the area.

Chair Alan Maio noted that he and Hines regularly attend Florida Association of Counties (FAC) meetings. “There was broad consensus [during a recent session],” he added, for the counties to do just what Robinson recommended.

In his Nov. 14 emailed to Hines, Lewis also reported that FAC had scheduled its 2017 Legislative Conference from Nov. 30 to Dec. 2. “I expect the [Airbnb] issue to be discussed. We will also learn if it will be a FAC legislative priority or legal issue,” Lewis added.

“[Rob Lewis] is doing a great job,” Robinson said on Oct. 25. “I just don’t want [this concern] to get lost before the World Rowing Championships.”

“It is a lot of money that we’re losing,” Hines concurred. “We should seek to collect our past money that hasn’t been paid,” he added, as well as tax revenue that would be forthcoming after an agreement was inked with Airbnb.

“I would agree with that,” Maio said. Alluding to the fact that the Florida Department of Revenue completed negotiations with Airbnb last year — and some counties have done so on their own — Maio noted the provisions for “lump-sum settlements with no paperwork provided, no itemization provided … is just unbelievable.”

Past and present

As chair of the county’s Tourist Development Council (TDC), Hines asked Sarasota County Tax Collector Barbara Ford-Coates for an update during the TDC’s Nov. 17 regular meeting.

“To add perspective [to the matter],” she explained that Tourist Development Tax — or “bed tax” — revenue is collected differently from county to county. In some cases, the Department of Revenue handles that work for counties; in others, it is a responsibility of the county comptroller.

In 1992, she continued, the Sarasota County Commission asked her to have her office take over the collections from the state. At that time, she noted, the county had only 700 accounts, and the Department of Revenue was remitting the money to the county “at least 90 days later; sometimes, longer.”

Sarasota County Tax Collector Barbara Ford-Coates holds the award she recently received from a state organization. Contributed photo
Sarasota County Tax Collector Barbara Ford-Coates holds the award she recently received from a state organization. Contributed photo

Within just a couple of years, Ford-Coates noted, her office increased the number of accounts to 1,300, and it was turning over the money to the county on a monthly basis.

“As part of our continuing effort to find accounts,” she pointed out, “we check [rental property] websites; we monitor advertising, and we have over the last several years made several attempts to contact Airbnb.”

She added, “We do have customers — owners in Sarasota County — who rent their properties through Airbnb and are good, solid taxpaying citizens,” who collect the Tourist Development Tax and remit it to her office.

However, she has been unable to make any progress with Airbnb, she told the TDC members.

In late 2015, she pointed out, the state Department of Revenue signed its agreement with Airbnb, which came as a surprise to her and other tax collectors, as the department had not contacted any of them about its negotiations. Its agreement, she said, focused solely on collections for the 22 counties whose Tourist Development Tax it handles.

Afterward, she said, she contacted Airbnb again, “and we began negotiating.” In the spring, she noted, “I was very hopeful that we would be seeing an agreement with them.” The negotiations still have not been successful, however, because of several stances from which the company will not budge, she told the TDC members.

First, Airbnb refuses to provide any information on the properties in the county that participate in its online rental service. Therefore, Ford-Coates explained, it would be impossible to audit the records of those properties. Second, she said, “we could not back-tax anything.”

Those two aspects of a potential county agreement deviated from the one the Department of Revenue signed with the firm, she pointed out.

Furthermore, she continued, Airbnb would require “all sorts of lead time on requests for information.” Finally, the firm wanted to keep everything confidential under its guidelines, not under those of the state’s Sunshine Law. Yet, Ford-Coates noted, information about property owners who collect Tourist Development Tax revenue remains confidential anyway under state law.

The Airbnb logo is from the vacation rental company's website.
The Airbnb logo is from the vacation rental company’s website.

After Airbnb representatives laid out all those stipulations, she said, she could not help but get “the feeling in the pit of [her] stomach that it’s jut not the right thing to do [to sign that kind of agreement].”

Monroe County’s attorney has been considering whether to file suit against Airbnb, she continued. Because such action should be left to the County Commission — acting upon advice of the Office of the County Attorney, she noted — she had turned the matter over to Deputy County Attorney Schneider. “I’m happy to do whatever the county wants me to do,” Ford-Coates added.

In her Nov. 22 email to the Sarasota News Leader, Schneider also wrote, “Monroe County has not yet filed an action, to our knowledge; it is considering the possibility, and we have had discussions with them. However, they are not considering a “class action” suit. If anything, it would be a multi-party suit.”