The Coastal Association of Realtors (Coastal) has been consistently growing its presence as a political activist group in recent years. This week representatives from Coastal testified in Annapolis against the proposed sales tax expansion, which had the potential to serious impact the real estate industry. In addition, Coastal has testified in recent months on several local bills, including in Worcester County when it opposed legislation regulating rentals due to the high fees proposed. Coastal has also appeared before elected officials in Wicomico and Sussex counties.
This week Coastal is making waves in Berlin with a full-page advertisement in this paper as well as a mailer. The message is clear to residents – let your elected representatives know you are not okay with another property tax increase for the next fiscal year’s budget as well as new restrictions on where property owners can manage short-term rentals like Airbnb and VRBO. The hard-hitting campaign reads, “Our taxes and fees went up last year, and now there are plans to increase our tax rate even more AND violate our private property rights and take away a source of income that could help us pay for these increases. … A home is our most important investment and short-term rentals help us pay for the cost of our home. The town needs sensible ordinances that allow us to keep our property rights – as Berlin keep its small-town charm. And we can’t pay anymore in property taxes.”
The mailer includes a card to mail to your elected official with a note seeking the resident’s signature. The note read, “Please don’t let the American dream of homeownership die in Berlin. Our home costs, taxes and fees are rising. My neighbors and I can’t afford another property tax increase and we see a short-term rental ban as another obstacle to buying and maintaining our home.”
As a few Berlin officials are prone to do, Berlin Councilman Zackery Tyndall took to Facebook to encourage residents to communicate with their representatives about the measures highlighted on the mailer. Tyndall voted against the tax increase last year and seems to oppose restrictions on short-term rentals in town. Providing tax information showing Tyndall’s property tax on his home is lower today than it was in 2009, Councilman Troy Purnell commented on the thread, saying, “I want to hear your solution. Now. We are all taxpayers and if you have a proposal share it. Now. We are all listening. Now. Monday night would be a great time for your solution to be revealed.”
On the Berlin tax front, a 3-cent property tax rate hike will be proposed by Mayor Gee Williams at next week’s council meeting. An ordinance to increase the tax rate to 83 cents per $100 of assessed valuation will be under review at town hall. The proposed tax rate increase represents a 4-percent hike on the heels of last year’s 18-percent increase. Once the tax rate ordinance is introduced, proposed increases to the town’s utility fees will be discussed at town hall.
In just two months, Worcester County has collected $42,000 in licensing fees from 116 rental license applications through its new rental license program, according to Tuesday’s report to the County Commissioners from Ed Tudor, the county’s director of development review and permitting.
“Of course, that’s not including what we’ll be collecting from the room tax from those eventually,” Tudor said. “We’re very happy to see that.”
Roughly a year ago, the county began exploring ways to implement a rental license program. Four bills, three of which were passed in August and one of which was passed in October, allowed for the creation and implementation of a county-wide rental license program.
In November, the county worked with Tyler Technologies to purchase software that would allow the program to be implemented. The county also hired a rental license program coordinator who began accepting applications Jan. 13. Tudor reported that any given day between three and 10 applications were entered into the county’s database.
“A significant amount of staff time is spent each day conducting research of our records for floor plans and site plans in an effort to assist the applicants with their submittals, calculating occupancy for the short-term rentals, as well as answering phone calls and meeting with applicants in person,” Tudor wrote in his report to the commissioners.
He said he was surprised by the fact that there was a two to one ratio of long-term versus short-term rental applications.
“That could be that the long-term landlords are local as opposed to the short-term landlords,” Commissioner Joe Mitrecic said.
Tudor thanked department staff for their efforts in launching the rental license program and also praised local real estate agents for sharing information on the new requirements.
With the program now in place, the challenge for the county will be targeting the property owners managing their own short-term rentals. From a brief search on Airbnb, a majority of the listings in the county are maintained by non-local residents. The chances are high these folks are unaware of the rental license program. Communicating with these property owners and then collecting the fee will be the complicated part of this effort.