County and Airbnb talk; tax, legality questions loom

Online vacation-rental booker Airbnb sorely wants to operate in the Florida Keys but Monroe County commissioners expressed doubts Wednesday about the firm’s plan to pay tourist taxes.

“Nothing is a deal-breaker. Everything is on the table,” Airbnb representative Brian Bautista told commissioners at their Key Largo meeting. “We understand Monroe County has unique issues so we request the opportunity to try to work through them.”

Airbnb says it has more than 300 client “hosts” in the Keys who use the online site to advertise and book reservations for stays in private homes, apartments, cabins and docked boats.

Unless Airbnb provides owner names and addresses for the advertised accommodations, commissioners indicated, no agreement on tourist taxes seems likely. “We have to be able to have public scrutiny on all the issues,” Commissioner George Neugent said. “We’re going to have to address that particular [identification] issue or we’re at loggerheads before we even start.”

The Keys’ nightly bed tax is 12.5 percent. Of that, 7.5 percent goes to the state, the rest to the county.

Commissioners authorized County Attorney Bob Shillinger to negotiate with Airbnb, but also told him to begin contacting other Florida counties to see if they want to join a potential a class-action lawsuit against the firm over failure to pay tourist taxes.

“We are not waiting to see how to see how the negotiations go with Airbnb before reaching out to other counties,” Shillinger said Friday.

Airbnb sent Monroe County Tax Collector Danise Henriquez a proposed “voluntary collection agreement” earlier this year, with the company offering to collect tourist-tax money from unit owners and forward it to the county. However, the proposed pact says Airbnb will keep the unit owners “anonymous” with no “personally identifiable information” on their names, or addresses where the rentals operate.

“They want to send a lump sum every month and have us accept that,” Henriquez said earlier this month. “How do we know if they're remitting the correct amount of tax?”

The number of vacation rentals in the unincorporated county are tightly limited, and the short-term rentals (less that 28 days) are prohibited in most residential neighborhoods. Key West and other Keys municipalities each have their own slate of rules, but all require licenses, inspections and payment of bed taxes.

Shillinger agreed with Henriquez that the Airbnb payment offer as presented “would facilitate violations of the county's vacation-rental ordinance.”

Several other Florida counties accepted the agreement terms, Bautista said. “It’s important to us to work with you and Key West,” he said.

None of those mainland counties have the same hurricane-evacuation and affordable-housing issues as Monroe, Mayor Heather Carruthers said. “That’s why we require people to be licensed,” she said. “That’s why we require inspections.”

Commissioner Danny Kolhage asked if Airbnb verifies that its client-hosts “are legal and licensed.”

“It’s incumbent upon our hosts to comply with the local laws,” Bautista said.

“Does that mean no?” wondered Kolhage. There was no response.

Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206