Following an increase in Suffolk’s short-term accommodation tax in June, the county comptroller’s office began sending notices to startled property owners. The artificial intelligence-powered mailings were based on a comparison of online vacation rental listings to county records. Any landlord who had not already registered with the county was warned to do so. Those landlords who had booked paying tenants and taken payment were ordered to remit the county’s 5.5-percent cut right away.
Suffolk’s enforcement of the accommodation tax was overdue. Far too many property owners using Airbnb and its competitors to handle sub-30-day rentals were operating as de facto hotels, but not paying up.
The bulk of Suffolk’s hotel rooms are within East Hampton Town limits, as are many thousands of short-stay units. However, little of the accommodation tax money comes back east. Instead, it has been spent on various county projects, with a substantial portion now to be directed to help pay for a massive commercial redevelopment scheme in Islip. Midway Crossing, as its Chicago-based backers call it, would be a boost for that part of the county, but would be essentially meaningless for the East End, where most of the short-term-tax income originates.
In Montauk, business interests are pressing for a share. The president of the Montauk Chamber of Commerce agrees that so far the deal has been lopsided. This is a time when the popular vacation destination has been near to overflowing but without commensurate improvements to infrastructure. To cite one basic example, few of the downtown Montauk streets have sidewalks, including on the ocean-facing motel row. This forces the hamlet’s guests to walk in the roadway to get around on foot — a tacky and thoughtless arrangement that needs to be corrected. Longer term, the Town of East Hampton will continue to face massive costs linked to sea level rise, such as shifting the vulnerable resort economy to higher ground. Some of that 5.5 percent tax would surely help in that case, too.