County collecting tourist tax from most Airbnb owners

ANNA MARIA ISLAND – The Manatee County Tax Collector told concerned county commissioners last week that vacation rental owners using Airbnb to rent their local properties online are paying their fair share of tourist tax.

“Tourist tax dollars across all vacation rental platforms, including Airbnb, are being collected and remitted,” Manatee County Tax Collector Ken Burton Jr. told commissioners in a detailed presentation by Burton and his staff.

The report was prompted by a January county commission vote to investigate taking the responsibility for collecting Airbnb tourist taxes away from the tax collector and transferring it to the Florida Department of Revenue (DOR). Commissioners had expressed concern that a 2018 lawsuit that Burton’s office filed against Airbnb to enforce collections was moving too slowly.

The county’s 5 percent tourist tax is collected from owners of accommodations rented for six months or less who charge the tax to their renters, in most cases, tourists. About 50 percent of the tax proceeds are allocated to Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau tourism marketing efforts, with about 20 percent allocated to beach renourishment and the rest to statutorily-defined uses that benefit tourism.

In 2015, the DOR and Airbnb agreed that Airbnb would collect sales tax from its users in all 67 counties, but would collect tourist tax in only 26 counties, said Michele Shulz, Burton’s director of Field Services and Collections. In the remaining counties, including Manatee, Airbnb rental property owners are on the honor system to remit the 5 percent tourist tax directly to the tax collector.

Burton chose to sue Airbnb rather than sign an agreement that would have required him to waive his ability to audit Airbnb records to identify owners and forced him to discharge past due taxes and penalties owed by Airbnb and all its clients, said the tax collector’s attorney, Janelle Esposito, of the Esposito Law Group.

Entering into such an agreement with Airbnb would violate state law and result in less collection of the tourist tax, she said, adding that the lack of an agreement “does not mean we are not collecting the tax.”

Enforcement

The tax collector has 7,063 vacation rental accounts registered, Shulz said.

Hotels and motels are easy for the tax collector to identify and collect tourist taxes from, but it’s not as easy to determine whether condos (53 percent of the county’s vacation rentals), single family homes (27 percent), multi-family homes, apartments, duplexes, mobile homes, rooms and travel trailers are being rented to vacationers.

Burton’s office uses several methods to uncover vacation rental owners who are dodging the tourist tax, including Harmari, online software that assists in identifying short-term rental properties.

Harmari found that in January in Manatee County, 99.83 percent of vacation rentals using all vacation rental platforms already were registered with the tax collector.

“They only found six new accounts,” Shulz told commissioners.

When Harmari specifically looked at Airbnb rentals on March 1, the program found that 78 percent of Airbnb properties in the county were registered. Out of 210 properties identified, Harmari found 46 unregistered accounts, whose owners have received letters from the tax collector requesting compliance.

If rental property owners do not comply, the tax collector can place a lien on a rental property and garnish income.

“We have a high collection rate,” Shulz said.

Airbnb is growing locally as well as internationally. In 2015, Airbnb accounted for .6 percent of the $11 million in tourist taxes collected in the county, she said. By 2018, Airbnb accounted for 4.2 percent, or about $620,000 of the $14.6 in tourist tax collections.

Airbnb is the second-largest online rental platform used in Manatee County, with about 2,300 properties. The most popular is VRBO, with about 4,750. Flipkey is in third place, with about 2,200, according to the tax collector’s office.