There are 110 vacation homes in Wallowa County listed on Airbnb’s online site alone, not to mention other sites. How many of them are legal?
Not all, according to Wallowa County Treasurer Shonelle Dutcher. She and her assistant Carolyn Doherty are tracking operators who have not followed the correct procedures when setting up their lodging businesses.
The duo is searching the Internet, noting descriptions and pictures of Wallowa County offerings and hunting down the operators. It’s a labor- intensive project, but they are aided by residents who anonymously report the operation of unregistered lodgings.
Besides Airbnb, there are tripping.com, FlipKey, HomeAway, VRBO and others.
Wallowa County Commissioners recently explained their requirements to one operator who had been renting a room for four years without paying county transient lodging taxes. The operator was astonished when she received a letter requiring her to pay taxes extending back four years and assessing penalties amounting to approximately $800.
Although the operator claimed she was simply ignorant of the law, not a scofflaw, commissioners voted unanimously to require payment of the fees.
Operators who use Airbnb and others may have flown under the radar for some time, but states, counties and cities across the country are cracking down.
Wallowa County Treasurer Dutcher has sent out approximately 20 letters recently, informing owners that they owe back taxes and penalties and must account for their businesses. All but three operators identified have responded, she said, most having paid their fees immediately upon receiving the letter.
Other operator responsibilities may include obtaining a conditional use permit from the planning department, registering with the health department or double-checking homeowner insurance to guarantee coverage. Airbnb takes a three percent fee that provides some liability insurance, and in some select cities or states contract to pay state fees, the responsibility for meeting legal obligations to operate a lodging business is generally on the operator. It’s not all a case of cities and counties playing catch-up. Online booking conglomerates may be a new wrinkle in the fabric of lodging, but many cities and counties already have ordinances broad enough to regulate them.
Wallowa County, for instance, has had a Motel Room Tax ordinance that has covered almost every rental situation since 1994. That ordinance specifically includes B&Bs, Motels, RV parking spaces and vacation cabins as well as simple bed rental.
Transient lodging taxes to Wallowa County amount to five percent of rent charged and are due quarterly. Every operator is responsible to keep records and accounting books to show the accuracy of their payments. Late penalties of two percent per month can be charged along with interest of two percent per month. Additionally, a fine can be assessed for violation of any provisions of the ordinance.
Both Joseph and Enterprise cities also assess a three percent transient lodging tax fee on top of the county fee.
The money collected through the Transient Lodging Tax at the county level is paid out to the Wallowa County Health Care District Emergency Services Department, Wallowa County Search and Rescue Unit, Wallowa County Solid Waste program, tourism, recreation, economic development, city or county parks or other worthy county projects and the Wallowa County Chamber of Commerce.