KEY LARGO – The Monroe County Board of County Commissioners, at its Wednesday meeting at the Murray E. Nelson Government and Cultural Center in Key Largo, dealt with items regarding Airbnb vacation rentals, “Granny Flats” and the historic Tavernier Hurricane/Refuge School, which was constructed as part of Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal during the Great Depression.
Here’s the issues and what happened:
AIRBNB VACATION RENTALS: In February, Airbnb presented the Monroe County Tax Collector with a proposed voluntary collection agreement regarding the collection of Tourist Development Taxes and Tourist Impact Taxes, which are mandated by Monroe County but that the online company has not been paying.
Airbnb, which facilitates the exchange of money between property owners and short term vacation rental tenants, pays such taxes in Florida to only the 22 counties where the state Department of Revenue collects the tax on the counties’ behalf and to the handful of counties that have entered into voluntary collection agreements with Airbnb.
Monroe County Tax Collector Danise Henriquez, after consulting with the County Attorney’s office, declined to enter into a similar agreement for Monroe County due to concerns over contract terms that would limit her ability to audit (to ensure collections are accurate), collect back taxes and identify rental unit owners. County staff also is concerned that the proposed agreement, as drafted, would facilitate violations of the County’s vacation rental ordinance.
The BOCC directed County Attorney Bob Shillinger to first negotiate with Airbnb to see if a settlement can be reached that addresses the concerns regarding both the collection of taxes and the adherence to the County’s code on vacation rentals.
If a satisfactory agreement is not reached, the BOCC authorized the County Attorney to negotiate an agreement with Jay Shapiro of Stearns Weaver Miller Weissler Alhadeff & Sitterson to encourage other counties to enter into a class action suit similar to the one that was successful against other online travel companies in 2010, resulting in a $6.5 million settlement agreement.
“Airbnb, we now have their attention,” Shillinger said. “They have told me they are willing to talk and have a conversation.”
Brian Batista, representing Airbnb, told the Commissioners: “We respectfully request before you resort to litigation and adversarial proceedings that we have an opportunity to work it out between ourselves. Nothing is a deal breaker. We want to work with you guys. Monroe County is extremely important to us. It is one of the most unique places.”
“Of course, we are very much aware of that,” Mayor Heather Carruthers said. “That’s why we have a transient rental moratorium. That’s why we require people to be licensed. That’s why we require inspections. That’s why there is a whole host of regulations that ensure our visitors have a safe and appropriate experience here when they stay in our accommodations. … We also operated under issues regarding hurricane evacuation and we need to account for all bodies that are here at one time. That, along with the fairness issue of tax collections.”
Commissioner Danny Kolhage asked if Airbnb verifies that the units they place are legal and licensed. Batista responded: “It’s incumbent upon our hosts to comply with the local laws.”
GRANNY FLATS: Due to the need for more information, the BOCC decided to continue until next month the item regarding the creation of a County ordinance to utilize the Florida Constitution’s 2002 “Granny Flats” Amendment.
The state law that resulted from the amendment allows local governing bodies to reduce the assessed value of a homesteaded home whose property owner built or renovated a portion of the property after Jan. 7, 2003 for living quarters for parents or grandparents. The reduction is only for the assessed value of the “Granny Flats” portion of the property and cannot exceed 20 percent of the total value of the property. Qualifying parents or grandparents must be at least 62 years of age, reside on the property and do not claim a homestead exemption in any other county or state. There are now 29 counties in Florida that have a “Granny Flats” ordinance.
TAVERNIER HURRICANE/REFUGE SCHOOL: The BOCC approved a resolution to provide matching funds, up to $500,000, for a state grant application to renovate the County-owned, historic Tavernier Hurricane/Refuge School. The building was one of two concrete hurricane/refuge schools built in the Upper Keys in 1937-38 during the Great Depression by Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, a New Deal agency. Its last use was as a County health clinic, which closed in March 2006. For the past 10 years the building has been shuttered. The County plans to apply to the Florida Division of Historical Resources for a Special Category Historic Preservation Grant, which funds 50 percent matching up to $500,000. It has not been decided how the renovated building would be used.