MALONE –– In response to concerns that Franklin County is not collecting all the occupancy tax it is entitled to, the county is establishing a tip line to allow residents to anonymously report property owners who are hosting short-term rentals without registering them
There are currently 168 properties registered with the county to collect the 5% occupancy tax –– a levy added to the price of hotel and motel rooms and other short-term rentals, according to County Treasurer Fran Perry.
Revenues from the tax –– also called a “bed tax” –– are used to pay for the county’s tourism promotion efforts.
The county has been stepping up its efforts to make sure property owners who are offering rentals have registered –– an effort Perry said contributed to 41 property owners registering so far in 2020, despite the downturn in tourism caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. But there are still an unknown number of property owners who have not registered, and the Treasurer’s Office simply does not have the staff to pursue those who have failed to comply with the registration requirement, she told the county Legislature during a meeting last week.
“You’re down to the hardest ones to get,” said Legislature Chairman Don Dabiew, D-Bombay.
Some property owners are simply unaware of or confused by the registration requirement, Perry said. She cited one owner who believed they had registered when their town code officer issued a certificate of occupancy –– which only indicates the property meets the legal requirements for occupancy.
The county also has an agreement with online rental services Airbnb under which the company collects the tax from property owners who list with it and turns it over to the county. The county has also been working with VRBO, another online rental service, but has had difficulties because of the way that company lists its properties, Perry said.
She cited an example of a property that is listed on VRBO as being in Constable, when it is in fact in the Lewis County community of Constableville. Another property is listed for rent in Westville –– and Malone and Bangor and Duane and several other communities, she said.
VRBO’s rental database indicates there are nearly 1,400 properties available in Franklin County, but that number appears to be wildly inaccurate because of “many duplicated properties,” she said.
“We are actively working on this,” Perry said, but she again pointed out the difficulty in adding that responsibility to those already her office already handles, including regular property tax collections and the recently expired tax amnesty that brought in nearly $1.4 million in delinquent payments.
To help focus the search for noncompliant property owners, the county is setting up a tip line people can call to point officials toward those who are avoiding the registration requirement. The callers would be anonymous and go to a voice mail box rather than to a person to help ensure that anonymity, Perry said.
At present, all calls to county offices can be identified through caller ID, but Perry said the county information technology department is working to set up a line on which the ID function would be disabled.
“The process is very involved,” Perry said.
Once the tip line is operational, the county will advertise the number in hopes of encouraging people to call in with information about possible registration scofflaws, she said.