MANATEE -- Renting a property and skating on the bed tax? Ken Burton Jr. is looking for you.
The Manatee County tax collector has stepped up efforts to go after property owners quietly renting out a home as a vacation unit without paying the county's 5 percent levy on those sales.
The trend has been on the rise since the housing crash, with out-of-town investors using homes they bought on Anna Maria Island as short-term rentals until values improve enough to sell.
"Everybody and their brother was putting up signs advertising a home for rent," Burton Jr. said. "Our goal is to make it a level playing field, but it's nearly impossible to fully enforce."
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Tourist development taxes, or bed taxes, are a five-penny fee charged on every dollar collected for room accommodations of six months or less. It doesn't matter the rental is a single-family home, motel or beachfront condo.
The funds are used to help market the area and pay for local capital improvements, including the recently completed $6.5 million renovation to the Bradenton Area Convention Center in Palmetto.
In the past, the tax collector has relied on the honor system for resort collections. The recession made that strategy less feasible.
For the Marriott and Holiday Inns of the world, it is easy to spot.
But landlords living as far away as Europe were advertising local rentals, booking nights and never paying a penny toward local county coffers or state sales tax.
Traditional resort operators see the practice as an unfair advantage.
"If somebody's a cheater, they're a cheater," said David Teitelbaum, who operates four resorts on the island. "These are important funds, and when people are
not playing by the rules, it hurts us all."
To combat the problem, the tax collector has set up an anonymous phone and email tip line for residents to report a neighbor who may be cheating the system. The number to call is 941-741-4809.
The department also bolstered its online research efforts, with staffers scouring the web for rental listings on sites like Craigslist, Homeaway.com and Rentalo.com.
Any rental activity not registered as one of the county's more than 6,000 active resort tax accounts is then investigated.
Those efforts in fiscal year 2011-2012 led to 1,115 new accounts -- including 132 identified directly from tips -- and $56,904 in recovered taxes, records show.
"They collect a lot of money we probably wouldn't have gotten otherwise," Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore said.
Tourist development tax collections have been on the rise as visitation to the region grows.
Manatee County has collected $7.8 million in bed taxes for the fiscal year that ended in August, a 14 percent increase from the same time a year ago and a 25 percent climb from year 2009-2010.
"There's a lot of counties out there that are having big time problems collecting tourism taxes," said Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We're fortunate."
Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman