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New Airbnb registration fees raise hackles as Great Barrington works to cover its costs

The Hill neighborhood in Great Barrington

Short-term rentals are proliferating in "The Hill" neighborhood in Great Barrington, some residents say. The Select Board voted on a flat $200 annual registration fee for rental hosts. One host told the board the fee is "punitive" given the state and local taxes and community impact fees already imposed.

GREAT BARRINGTON — Airbnb hosts in Great Barrington say a $200 yearly registration fee is yet another drain on their profits.

They already have to pay state and local excise taxes, as well as other costs of renting out a home and property taxes.

But town officials are looking to cover the roughly $40,000 annual cost of monitoring short-term rentals. Those include staff time, as well as paying for compliance software by GovOs, which will be $18,000 for the first year then increase by 7 percent in the second and third years of the contract, according to Town Manager Mark Pruhenski.

The Select Board voted 3-1 Monday to impose the $200 flat fee that hosts pay when they register properties they rent out in the short term. Board member Garfield Reed abstained. Board Vice Chair Leigh Davis voted no because she wanted the annual fee to be $250.

The town is now putting its new short-term rental regulation into motion after voters approved the bylaw at annual town meeting in June. The regulation went into effect Jan. 1.

It was a stormy lead up to the June vote, given the 150-day annual limit placed on rentals that some residents have said they now rely on for income.

Pruhenski’s initial proposal to the board was to charge $100 as a base fee, along with a $100 fee for rentals that are not also being used as a primary residence. To that, the town would add $25 per person renting the house.

Pruhenski said towns have wide latitude in setting fee amounts. Some charge nothing and others require hundreds of dollars.

Lenox, for instance, does not charge a registration fee, according to Town Clerk Kerry Sullivan. The town also does not have costs of compliance software.

One rental host told the board Monday that the new $200 fee is “punitive,” given the other government-imposed costs she bears – a 6 percent tax to the town, a 5.7 percent state tax and a 3 percent community impact fee.

“It’s just, wow,” said Maureen Meier. “You’ve already limited how many nights I can do, limited the overall money I can bring in and now I feel like you’re considering adding too much to that.”

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Meier said that if she were to bring $30,000 in from her rental, she’d pay $1,700 to the state, $1,800 to the town and then another $900 for the community impact fee – not to mention her $4,500 in real estate taxes. And now she faces the $200 yearly registration fee.

After some back and forth, the board decided to go with a recommendation by members Eric Gabriel and Ed Abrahams for a flat fee to make it easier to collect. It would generate the same amount of revenue for the town, they said.

Davis wanted it to be $250, which she said was “meeting halfway,” knowing the average rate per night for the rentals in town range from $350 to $450, depending on the season.

She later told The Eagle there is a reason for her thinking. “I’m not trying to penalize people but just trying to follow some logic,” she said.

Abrahams, who had fought the initial regulation last year, later said he has a problem with the fees, especially since people who rent out their houses for a few weeks a year will pay the same fees as those who do the full allowable 150 days.

Enter the ghosts of last year’s bitter debate.

“They’re operating on the assumption that people are making a lot of money [hosting],” Abrahams said. “My bias on all of this is I don’t understand why we’re doing registration. The state is already doing it. We’ve created a bureaucracy and we’re now charging people money to pay for a thing we don’t need to do.”

When asked if he is allowed to weigh in on any short-term rental-related issues – given an ethics dust-up last year over potential conflicts of interest – Abrahams said he was never told by the state Ethics Commission to recuse himself given that his domestic partner had rented her previous home. He added that she hasn’t been a short-term rental host “for a while.”

He also said that fee discussions are different, and that anyone in town who owns a house – including other board members – has the ability to be an Airbnb host.

Gabriel said the same. He did recuse himself from the policy-making discussions last year on the advice of the commission because he owns long-term rental properties.

Airbnb rental properties near the homes of Davis, Abrahams and board Chair Stephen Bannon snarled proceedings temporarily last year as the commission sorted out whether there was a conflict of interest.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or 413-329-6871.

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