Ontario County wants to extend its occupancy tax to cover private rentals such as Airbnbs

There’s a new game in town, and it’s created a taxing situation.

Counties across the state are hopping on board to tax private rentals through websites like Airbnb, which previously didn’t tax patrons for renting rooms, cabins or cottages in those counties. Monroe County is the latest to announce Airbnb will now collect a 6 percent occupancy tax on each rental. Other area counties already tax such rentals, along with stays at traditional hotels, motels and bed and breakfasts. Yates County charges 4 percent, and Livingston and Seneca counties each charge 3 percent.

Ontario County sent a request to Albany to extend its existing 3 percent occupancy tax to include all rooms. That request stalled once in the Legislature and is stalled again during a second attempt to get it passed as lawmakers disagree over taxes in general.

“The intent is for us to level the playing field for all,” said Jack Marren, chairman of the Ontario County Board of Supervisors.

The county board unanimously voted to extend its 3 percent occupancy tax to all rooms. Its bed tax currently applies only to places renting four or more.

“We have all these bed and breakfasts, and they say we have got to be fair,” said Valerie Knoblauch, president of the Ontario County Tourism Bureau. Since 2014, Airbnbs “have exploded in our area,” she said. “The business environment of how people rent rooms has changed.”

The county has 1,200 rooms, which don’t include Airbnbs and similar private rentals. Knoblauch said she doesn’t know how many of these kinds of rentals are in the county. Estimates of about 300 seem low, she said. “Now Ontario County still has this cry for leveling the playing field because Airbnbs have become more popular and tipped the marketplace,” she said.

Eric Moon runs The Quiet Place, a website that connects travelers with quiet cabins in the Finger Lakes. Moon, who owns some of the cabins, thinks the occupancy tax is a bad idea. He said the tax just makes it more expensive for his guests, and he sees a difference in bookings based on whether the cabin is subject to a bed tax. He also questions the value he and others in the business get from the tax that funds tourism promotion in the respective counties. People are booking on the Internet and on their phones, he said.

“My guests don’t even know Ontario County Tourism exists,” Moon said.

Bill and Lynne Keiper run Bed & Breakfast at Oliver Phelps in the city of Canandaigua. Bill said they don’t see a direct correlation between their business and the tourism bureau, called Finger Lakes Visitors Connection. But the agency “generates general interest in the area,” he said. The local tourism agency “is a conduit to I Love New York and tourism promotion statewide and in that they can help us,” he said. “It’s a great point of contact.”

Comparing bed and breakfasts to private rentals like Airbnbs, Bill Keiper thinks the two appeal to different markets and both have value.

“It’s good for the region to make us appeal to a wider range of guests,” he said. “We think it’s fair that everyone benefit from tourism,” he said, adding he doesn’t think it’s right that some have an unfair advantage by not having to collect an occupancy tax.

“If we are forced to collect the tax and someone a few blocks away doesn’t have to, it is kind of an unfair disadvantage,” Bill said.

The Ontario County Tourism Bureau receives 95 percent of its funding from its 3 percent bed tax. Knoblauch said if the county is able to extend the tax to all room rentals, it will provide additional revenue to promote and market everyone.

Marren said the county will reinvest the funds in marketing opportunities “and there is no better one to do that than Finger Lakes Visitors Connection.”

In Yates County, Jessica Bacher is president of the Yates County Chamber of Commerce that also acts as the county tourism arm. Bacher talked about the rise in popularity of nontraditional stays such as booking through Airbnb and experiences like glamping — a take-off on camping in which people enjoy creature comforts in nature by staying in souped-up barns, cabins, treehouses and other places.

“We see visitors looking for unique stays, especially millennials looking for nontraditional establishments,” she said.

Yates County has had a 4 percent bed tax on all rooms since 2016. “For traditional businesses in the lodging world, they are more about what is fair for one is fair for all,” Bacher said.

Moon said he would like to see fairness go in the direction of having no one pay bed tax. “Eliminate the occupancy tax for all,” he said. He suggested Ontario County raise its sales tax — at 3.5 percent, one of the lowest around — to 4 percent and fund the tourism bureau from the increase.

But it’s not likely Ontario County will go that route anytime soon. County Board Chairman Marren, who is also Victor town supervisor, said the county has no plans to raise its sales tax and it has not been discussed. During his more than nine years on the board Marren said the county raised the sales tax just once, a quarter-percent increase, to offset the cost of the capital project at Finger Lakes Community College. “We have to have a lot more rationale to support doing that,” he said.

“Our sales tax is why we have people frequent Eastview Mall and other retail establishments in the county,” Marren said. “We don’t want to jeopardize that.”