Airbnb: Dying to be taxed?

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

Woodstock lawmakers will consider tougher regulations to handle the rise in popularity of short-term rentals while recognizing homeowners’ right to make extra income. Town supervisor Bill McKenna urged the town board to give the policy of enforcing based on complaints — in effect since January — a chance to curb the negative effects of the rise in short-term rentals.

After conversations with rental giant Airbnb, McKenna is more amenable to new legislation. McKenna said he called an Airbnb hotline set up to handle complaints about landlords and tenants, but couldn’t get past the call-center representative to speak with a supervisor. In frustration, he told the representative that maybe he should just outlaw the business altogether.

“Within four hours I got a call from their legal counsel,” he said.


After a productive conversation, and was provided with model legislation, some of it rather strict, that other communities have enacted.

In Portland, Maine, every Airbnb rental has to be registered with the city. There’s a cap of 300 units. Airbnb accounts can be revoked for a year based on a noise complaint.

In many cases, fees paid to the municipality for the right to do business through Airbnb can be substantial. These restrictions and fees are endorsed by Airbnb.

Former supervisor Jeremy Wilber had hoped an update of the town’s comprehensive plan would have been completed by now, giving lawmakers guidance on how much regulation the public supports. With completion at least a year off, the board is now looking to act more quickly.

“I feel we need to do everything we can prior to the comprehensive-plan completion,” councilman Jay Wenk said.

As it stands now, entire homes cannot be rented short-term. Neither can single rooms if the owner is not present. Otherwise, that activity would fit the definition of a hotel, which is only legal in a small part of the town.

If the owner is present and rents rooms or even a cottage for less than a week, the premises are considered a bed-and-breakfast, requiring a $50 yearly permit and subject to regular inspection, according to McKenna.

Building inspector Ellen Casciaro acts based on complaints someone is renting illegally.

When the owner isn’t present, noise and quality-of-life issues go unchecked, raising tensions with year-round neighbors because of issues like garbage. Trash bins get placed on the curb at the end of the weekend, but trash isn’t collected for several days, inviting bears to spread it throughout the neighborhood, as Yerry Hill Road resident Duff Allen has complained.

Councilman Richard Heppner believes an increase in fees can help pay for the services of an additional person needed to enforce new regulations, Meanwhile, an effort to tax short-term rentals is stalled in the county legislature.

“Airbnb is dying for us to implement a tax because that implies what they’re doing is legal,” McKenna said. “They’ll even collect the tax and write us a check.”

McKenna encouraged the board to review the model legislation provided by Airbnb, but also to do their own research and come up with ideas.


How much is too much?

As it considers updates to the ethics law covering town officials, the board debated a monetary limit on gifts before it could be considered a bribe. Initially, the limit was $75, but the board settled on $50, a threshold meant mostly to curb frivolous accusations.

Jay Wenk was at first adamant that the limit be $20, but eventually agreed with the $50 compromise. Wenk was told a $20 limit would be too cumbersome in regard to paperwork. The law covers all town employees and many volunteers on boards and commissions, not just the town board.

“If the number’s too high, you’ll have frivolous things coming up all the time,” councilwoman Laura Ricci said.

“None of us should be taking a dime,” but a $50 limit should cover an employee accepting or buying someone the occasional cup of coffee, Wenk finally noted.

A public hearing on the new law is set for May 16 during the town board’s business meeting.


Summer-camp late fee

The cost for the Woodstock Summer Recreation Program will remain the same as it’s been for the past four years, $250 for residents, with a $25 discount for additional family members, and $450 for non-residents. New this year is a $25 fee for every camper registered after June 15.

The new late fee was enacted because the county health department requires an EMT and paramedic to review all applications. Last-minute signups add to administrative costs. Also, additional campers may require hiring of more staff.

The new fee is meant more to give parents a nudge to register on time than to be punitive, McKenna said.

Also new this year will be a policy to be printed on all registration forms stating that half of the tuition will be refundable during the first three days of camp. Afterward, it is completely non-refundable.

Though the camp fees were always non-refundable, the policy was never printed, town clerk Jackie Earley said. Now parents will be aware of it. The refund will give them some relief if their son or daughter doesn’t like the program.

Registration starts May 1. The program starts June 27 and runs for seven and a half weeks.