Hillsborough's tax collector rejects Airbnb deal that Pinellas approved

In Pinellas County, renters pay a tourism tax. Across the bay, negotiations haven't gone well.
Published May 21 2016
Updated May 21 2016

TAMPA — A many as 20 nights a month, strangers stay in the guest room of Ginny Cleary's cozy Seminole Heights bungalow.

They come from all over the country, for all kinds of different reasons. A college visit to the University of South Florida. A wedding in Tampa. Business or beaches in St. Petersburg.

They find her using Airbnb, the online portal that lets adventurous and penny-wise travelers rent rooms, condos and even houses from owners looking to pocket some extra money.

"I've always been excited about the crowdsharing idea," Cleary said, "and then I needed to make money so that's always appealing as well."

If Cleary's house was across the bay in Pinellas County, her renters would pay a tourism tax on each night's stay, collected by Airbnb. It's the result of an agreement signed last year between Airbnb and the Pinellas County tax collector.

But not in Hillsborough County, where Tax Collector Doug Belden has rejected the deal Airbnb reached with the state and five counties — including Pinellas.

Negotiations have not gone well. Belden accused Airbnb of jerking the county around by missing a conference call and failing to respond to counter proposals.

"It they want to do business they have to do it the correct way," he said. "I'm not going to chase them."

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Belden objects to several terms Airbnb has insisted on.

For one, in a contract it sent to the county, the company wouldn't be liable for any past tourism taxes uncollected by Airbnb or its hosts.

The contract also would bar county access to information about individual Airbnb users, both renters and homeowners. Without it, Belden said he would have no idea if Airbnb is paying the right amount in taxes.

"If they're going to write you a check, they can tell you where it's coming from," Belden said. "Why can't they disclose that information to a government official?"

Belden also took issue with a provision that would make the agreement and any communication with Airbnb confidential. He said that "clearly violates" open records laws.

In Florida, all short-term rentals are subject to the tourism development tax — five cents (in some counties, it's six cents) for every dollar spent — also known as the bed tax. Airbnb's view is that the company is a middle man between hosts and travelers who don't want to pay for a traditional hotel. From that perspective, it's up to the homeowner to collect and the company is going above and beyond by agreeing to assume that responsibility.

An Airbnb spokesman declined to speak on the record to the Tampa Bay Times and did not answer questions via email.

So far Hillsborough has not sought taxes from Airbnb's hosts. Even if it wanted to, it would be nearly impossible to figure out who to collect from without Airbnb's help.

Cleary said she has made about $16,000 a year renting her spare room since she joined in mid-2013. She claims that income on her tax returns but doesn't pay the county bed taxes.

Technically, she should have collected $800 in bed taxes. But she wasn't aware of the bed tax, and most other Airbnb hosts may not know about it either.

"I assumed that Airbnb would take care of it," Cleary said. "It would be a nightmare for homeowners to have to. I think that would be nuts."

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Airbnb has collected tourism taxes for its hosts in Pinellas County since Dec. 1. Pinellas is one of five Florida counties to reach an agreement with Airbnb. The company also agreed to terms with the Florida Department of Revenue to collect for 22 smaller counties.

Erin Sullivan-Bolt, Pinellas County's chief tax auditor for tourist taxes, said the agreement with Airbnb has leveled the playing field with traditional hotels, motels and bed and breakfasts.

The county has failed for years in its attempts to force other online booking sites like Travelocity and Expedia to remit the taxes they collected, to no avail, and even filed an unsuccessful lawsuit against them in 2009.

"After that experience, why would we not want to receive the tourist taxes from Airbnb's hosts?" Sullivan-Bolt said.

She added that unlike real estate taxes, where the bill goes directly to the homeowner, the county has to trust, to some extent, that hotels and other tourism rental companies pay what they owe. Hotels, however, are subject to an audit, she said, and Airbnb is as well.

But Belden said that in the case of hotels, the county can compare what is paid in taxes to past returns and other factors, like how many rooms are available to rent. With Airbnb, the county won't have any idea what the baseline should look like and the inventory will constantly change as new hosts decide to join or older ones stop listing their homes.

Pinellas County could not say how much Airbnb has collected in tourism taxes to date. Under state law, those numbers are confidential.

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It's unclear how much Hills­borough County could collect if they ever reach an agreement with Airbnb. But the online company is becoming more and more popular in the Tampa Bay area, where hotels are near capacity and the tourism market continues to grow.

There were about 2,300 rooms, apartments and homes available in Pinellas County as of this month, according to state data collected by Airdna, an analytics site that tracks Airbnb rentals. By comparison, there were almost 1,000 available in Hillsborough County.

The next meeting between Belden's office and Airbnb is scheduled for June 2.

There is an incentive for Hillsborough to reach an agreement. The county is on pace to collect $30 million in tourism taxes in calendar year 2016. Under state law, that could allow the county to raise its tourism tax from 5 percent to 6 percent. Local leaders see that sixth tourism cent as a way to help build a Tampa baseball stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays.

Revenue from Airbnb rentals would help reach that goal.

"If Airbnb came online by the end of the year, that could help," said Santiago Corrada, president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay.

"I know it legitimizes it, so there are some folks who might not want to legitimize Airbnb," he added. "But I can tell you if they're collecting from renters then they should be collecting taxes from renters like everybody else."

Times senior researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] Follow @scontorno.

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