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Suffolk comptroller says hotel-motel tax will be enforced

Suffolk County Comptroller John M. Kennedy

Suffolk County Comptroller John M. Kennedy Credit: Richard T. Slattery

Call it Suffolk Comptroller John M. Kennedy’s spring offensive.

On Wednesday, Kennedy will be doing an East End blitz. He’ll meet with town officials and go on local radio, ending his day at a conference with about 50 local chambers of commerce officials at the Hyatt hotel in Riverhead.

His message is clear: the county will fully enforce its 3 percent hotel-motel room tax, which brings in $9 million a year in revenue.

Last September, the county’s new three person hotel-motel tax unit began an audit and added 50 new lodging facilities to the 300 previously registered. Kennedy said he expects that number to rise by 50 to 100 establishments by year’s end.

The audit already has already assessed more than $253,000 in back taxes, penalties and interest, and Kennedy’s office so far has collected $111,000. That does not count $4.6 million from a $100 a day in fines for those who have failed to register.

Kennedy said those fines will be held in abeyance as long as owners register and pay other penalties. The comptroller backed a measure approved by the county legislature last week that lowers the fine for failing to register to $50 a day.

“Our intent is not to drive people out of business or reach into their own pocket, but to get them to collect the legitimate tax from their guests for the time they are there,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy added that state law permits the county to charge the tax on private homes that are rented for fewer than 30 days. He said extending enforcement to such residences could help local officials identify and control short-term rentals that are proliferating.

“The language of the law is broad and we have an obligation to abide by it,” he said.

Not everyone agrees with Kennedy’s assessment. New Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman says the state law only applies to hotels, motels, bed-and-breakfasts and rental cabins.

“If someone rents a house to a family for two weeks, that does not make it a hotel,” said Schneiderman, a former Suffolk County lawmaker and a Montauk motel owner. “Someone renting a house for a week might be happy to pay the tax, but you have to fix the law to establish that.”

East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell said he is looking forward to meeting with Kennedy to discuss his interpretation of the law and how he plans to enforce it.

East Hampton limits owners to short-term rentals of less than two weeks, twice in a six-month period. He said the town has created a new registry of rental homes to get more control over a dramatic increase in short-term rentals. Already, more than 600 homes have been registered for the law that officials say takes effect May 1.

“To the extent the comptroller actively enforces high-turnover rentals, it complements what the town is doing to prevent commercialization in our neighborhoods,” Cantwell said. But he said he doesn’t want to affect longer seasonal rentals “which have a long history and tradition in the town and help many local people who rely on the income or need the money to put their kids through college.”

Suffolk Legis. Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue), who helped set up Kennedy’s meeting with the chambers, said there is “a lot of concern” among local tourist businesses about the rise of competition from Internet sites such as Airbnb.

“A small B&B owner, who is already overwhelmed with paperwork and paying the tax, doesn’t want to see someone else who isn’t,” Krupski said. “They want a level playing field.”

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