Airbnb hosts get hunted down for Manatee tourism tax. Does it cost taxpayers too much?

Here’s a look at the most wish-listed Airbnb in Manatee

Jim Clouse talks about why he thinks his Airbnb listing in west Bradenton is so popular. The renovated detached garage is the most wish-listed Airbnb listing in Manatee County, according to the company.
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Jim Clouse talks about why he thinks his Airbnb listing in west Bradenton is so popular. The renovated detached garage is the most wish-listed Airbnb listing in Manatee County, according to the company.

The Manatee County Tax Collector’s Office refuted claims that it might be leaving money on the table when it comes to collecting tourism taxes from short-term rentals.

In an attempt to “change the narrative,” Tax Collector Ken Burton Jr. and his staff met with the Board of County Commissioners at a Tuesday morning workshop to walk them through all the processes they have in place to collect tourist taxes.

According to Michele Schulz, the director of fields services and collections, her team uses everything from boots on the ground to third-party vendor technology that identifies rentals that haven’t registered yet by scouring ads and listings.

There are 40 Florida counties that have entered an agreement allowing Airbnb – a popular website that allows homeowners to rent out their property to guests – to automatically remit the tourist development dollars, but Schulz argued they don’t have to sign such an agreement because, “we’re doing it right.”

In January, commissioners agreed that it was time to take another look at their position on Airbnb tax collection. In a March report, county staff reviewed Airbnb listings and found “many homes and condos being marketed in the Bradenton area that are probably not registered with the Tax Collector.”

But that assessment wasn’t accurate, Schulz said. On Jan. 31, the tax collector’s office used software to determine that of the 350 online bed and breakfast accounts they located, only six of them hadn’t registered for tourism tax remittance.

More recently, Burton’s staff honed in on Airbnb hosts and discovered 46 who hadn’t registered.

“So those 46 people will be getting letters from us this week that say they need to get in touch with our office,” Schulz said

Schulz explained that commissioners may have noticed that neighboring counties report higher earnings from Airbnb after signing an agreement, but that’s only because they don’t work as hard to track down those who aren’t in compliance.

“I know Sarasota comes up a lot and I want to make sure it’s very clear. Sarasota’s a very different entity than us. They don’t have field staff, they don’t have agents,” she pointed out. “So of course Sarasota’s revenue is going to take off through the roof because they’re not out there managing that.“

There’s even a tax evader hotline and website for residents to report someone they suspect is avoiding tax payments.

Burton reiterated that he filed a lawsuit against Airbnb in 2018 because he felt their proposal was not compliant with Florida law. Allowing Airbnb to handle the taxes would prevent his office from auditing their books and he predicts it would lead to lower tax collection than exists already.

Commissioners indicated that they were content with the update and confident that Burton is collecting taxes without issue.

“That’s amazing. I had no idea all the efforts you were going through,” said Commissioner Betsy Benac.

“I think you’re probably doing the best anyone can,” Commissioner Carol Whitmore added. “I’m totally OK with this now and I don’t plan on going forward with what we discussed at a prior meeting. Communication is everything.”

While Burton’s staff made it clear that the county isn’t missing out on money, commissioners questioned whether that process costs too many tax dollars.

“I’m saying let the professional tax collector do what he thinks is best right now unless something changes at the state level or he starts spending way too much money and we have to do a deal (with Airbnb),” said Commissioner Priscilla Whisenant Trace. “If you spend $1 million to save $5, that’s not real bright either.”

Benac noted that she was proud of the tax collector’s office for being so thorough but would like to see statewide legislation come out of Tallahassee so that the county can be certain that they’re properly conducting tax collection from Airbnb rentals.

“You have your obligation to collect the tax. I get that. But is there a better way to do that than having a large staff that has to go out and check it?” Benac asked the tax collector’s office. “I’m not convinced yet that we are doing it the best way. I’m going to continue to watch this and hopefully watch the state take a leadership role.”