Barbara Ford-Coates airs frustrations with the internet-based firm’s reluctance to comply with state disclosure laws on tourist tax collections
In March, Sarasota County Tax Collector Barbara Ford-Coates told members of the county’s Tourist Development Council (TDC) that she and her staff felt they were “just moments away” from signing an agreement with Airbnb to ensure the collection of the tourist development taxes on units its hosts rent in the county.
She pointed out that Airbnb representatives did not approach her office about the issue. “We tracked them down.”
Flash-forward six months, and an agreement has yet to be inked.
“Sometimes, in contract negotiations, things take longer than you would like to see,” Ford-Coates told The Sarasota News Leader this week.
In mid-September, Robert R. Lewis, director of community and intergovernmental relations for the county, contacted Ford-Coates after hearing a discussion about Airbnb during a Florida Association of Counties (FAC) meeting.
She explained to him in an email, “Over many months, we attempted to negotiate [an agreement] but [Airbnb representatives] have insisted on a number of provisions that are not in compliance with state law. This summer, Monroe County contacted the [Sarasota] County Attorney regarding the potential of a class action lawsuit that could be brought by multiple counties against Airbnb. My staff updated [Deputy County Attorney] Kathleen Schneider on our issues. At the state [tax collectors’] conference, I told the Monroe County Tax Collector that we wanted to be kept up-to-date with their plans.”
In a Sept. 26 telephone interview with the News Leader, Ford-Coates said Airbnb thus far has been insistent on an agreement with the county that would allow it to keep secret any details that would identify the hosts who work through its internet-based accommodations service. That would make it very difficult, for example, for Karen Rushing, the county clerk of the 12th Circuit Court and county comptroller, and her staff to complete their annual audit of county finances, Ford-Coates added, because they would have insufficient information about Tourist Development Tax revenue.
“I hate the fact that we’re not collecting [taxes from Airbnb hosts] at the moment,” Ford-Coates said. However, it would not be fair to those people who have been honest enough to pay the money, she explained, if her office could not collect revenue that should have been paid by others who failed to report it.
Moreover, Ford-Coates continued, Florida law makes it clear that tax collectors’ offices must keep confidential the names and addresses of people who collect tourist taxes from renters.
Ford-Coates also has been frustrated, she told the News Leader, by the fact that the state Department of Revenue forged an agreement with Airbnb, “which we’re shocked at,” to collect taxes going forward but with no provision for recovering past revenue.
A December 2015 Sun Sentinel story reported that Airbnb agreed to begin collecting revenue on Dec. 1, 2015 in the 22 counties where the state Department of Revenue handles what is referred to as “the bed tax.” However, the parties agreed that the company would provide only “anonymous reservation IDs,” according to the document, and that it would not be required to “produce any personally identifiable information” regarding hosts and guests.
An Airbnb customer service representative offered the following information to a Florida host in January, the News Leader found in an online search of Airbnb community forums:
“We are collecting and remitting Florida Transient Rental Tax of 6.00% on your behalf.
“Please do understand that we have signed an agreement with the Florida state, meaning the state is aware that Airbnb has a collect and remit feature. We will be filing one tax return per jurisdiction, with the total combined reservation revenue.
“We will not be filing individual forms … on behalf of hosts.
“You may need to file $0 returns going forward, but please consult a professional tax advisor to determine what is necessary for you.”
The tax in Sarasota County is 5%. The Tax Collector’s Office report on Tourist Development Tax revenue for the 2015 fiscal year showed a total of 15,405 accounts that collect it, with condominiums the predominant type of rental unit, followed by hotel/motel rooms.
“This is not a game,” Ford-Coates said. “Let’s just do it the right way.”
At this point, Ford-Coates continued, she has stepped back to let the county take the lead on negotiations. It is, after all, county money at the heart of the matter, she pointed out.
Her hope is that Monroe County and Palm Beach County — whose leaders have been allied with Monroe officials on the matter — will gain support from Florida Association of Counties to push for legislative action.
In response to questions from the News Leader, Lewis wrote in a Sept. 26 email, “The County Commission has not taken a specific position on the AirBnB issue to date. We will be carefully tracking the AirBnB issue as we move toward and into the 2017 legislative session and seek Commission policy direction as needed.”
On Sept. 15, Anna Madden, the county’s liaison to the Tourist Development Council, forwarded the Ford-Coates/Lewis email to Commissioner Charles Hines; Hines is the chair of the council.
Lewis told the News Leader that he expects to hear more this fall regarding “any FAC legislative policy position.”
In the meantime, when the News Leader checked out the Airbnb website, a click on the Become a Host button brought up the following: “You could earn $439 sharing your home in Sarasota in a week.”