Wallowa County Chieftain
When Lynne Price decided to rent out a room in her Enterprise home in 2014, she hoped to add a few dollars to her bank account and meet some interesting people.
She never expected to be in a protracted battle with Wallowa County over payment of transient lodging taxes.
Price signed up with AirBNB in 2014. The company hosts an online marketplace and hospitality service designed for people to lease or rent short-term lodging including vacation rentals, apartment rentals, homestays, hostel beds or hotel rooms.
“They were very professional, and part of what they told me was to check with my city and county to make sure I was following all of the rules,” said Price, who resides on Billings Roads.
Price told a hearing of the Wallowa County Board of Commissioners sitting as the Transient Lodging Tax Advisory Board she came by the courthouse in person and inquired but was not told of her responsibility to pay the lodging tax and was not offered the requisite forms.
Price has not revealed exactly who she spoke with saying she didn’t want to get anyone into trouble.
Fast-forward to August 2017, the date on which Price received a letter from the Wallowa County Treasurer’s Office by certified mail alerting her she was out of compliance.
Three weeks later, she paid the $572.70 in back taxes but refused to pay the penalties and interest totaling $831.39.
She maintains she cannot be held responsible for penalties and interest when she was not made aware of the tax provisions in the first place.
More than 100 similar operators were identified as part of a painstaking county crackdown. Since AirBNB and most of its competitors do not list addresses, county staff had to match photos to addresses manually to compile the list. Around 20 hosts received noncompliance notices, including Price, who was the only one to file an appeal.
Testimony from the Oct. 23 appeal hearing indicated that the county considered the onus to be on the property owner to be informed and comply and the county had no responsibility in that regard. Rental owners are also expected to receive a conditional use permit from the county.
Her appeal was denied and the final documents were signed in late December.
Price says her treatment by the county, particularly the county’s attorney Paige Sully who handled the hearing process, was aimed more at retribution than assisting a local business owner.
“I’m not a very big contributor to the county’s tourism economy, but I am a contributor,” Price said.
Price ran afoul of the county’s procedure at several junctures, most notably not being allowed to provide additional information on her case after the appeal was denied in October.
“You cannot submit new information and details because you will not be allowed to use the filing of a Petition of Waiver in an effort to circumvent the board’s ruling that the record on the appeal has been closed,” Sullly told Price in an email Dec. 4. “Technically they are not even required to entertain your petition, but will do so on the record that has been established to date.”
Sully went on to say that the county had no responsibility to respond to Price’s requests for information to help her prepare her case and suggested in the same email she file specific requests for records and pay the fees as require.
“I don’t know how much clearer I can be –– the board will not take any more information of any kind from you in support of your case in whatever format you may use,” Scully added.
Price said she tried to determine why she was required to pay the tax when the county’s ordinance, adopted in June 1994, did not specifically include “intermediaries,” which is the term used for organizations such as AirBNB.
According to county records, the ordinance was amended only once, in April 2004. State law on the matter, however, was changed in 2014 to include situations such as Price’s.
Price also said she found the penalties and interest to be excessive. The details are contained in Section 11 of the county’s Transient Lodging Tax. The ordinance allows the county to waive penalties and interest through a waiver, which Price filed. It was denied.
The next step could be the county pursuing a lien on Price’s property under Section 14 of the lodging tax ordinance. Worst case scenario, the personal property subject to the lien may be seized and sold at public auction.
Price said she has considered hiring legal representation but found the cost prohibitive.
Meanwhile, Price says she is getting out of the room rental business to avoid any further entanglements.
“I enjoy being a small part of the tourism industry that supports many people here in Wallowa County,” Price said. “My rating is great, I like meeting new people and to help them enjoy this beautiful area that I call home.”
MORE BED AND BREAKFAT INNS COMING
Wallowa County Planning Commission will hold hearings on four proposals to designate bed and breakfast inns. The commission meets 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 30 in the Thornton Conference Room at Wallowa County Courthouse.
• 61788 Chief Joseph Loop Road outside of Joseph (Roorda).
• 61053 Anderson Road outside of Joseph (Dawson)
• 82124 Black Marble lane outside of Enterprise (Christoffersen)
• 77986 Wade Gulch Lane outside of Lostine (Bellows)