The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors has set out its priorities for the 2017 General Assembly—among them, taxing Airbnb rentals and gaining more flexibility when the county negotiates contracts.
Airbnb: “Illegal hotels”
The Loudoun board is asking Richmond to “support legislation that preserves local land use and taxation authority while requiring transparency and efficient Transient Occupancy Taxes (T.O.T) collections as it relates to the growing short term rentals industry.”
“Those Airbnb hosts that occasionally rent out their home for a little extra additional income are not what we’re talking about here, and I think that’s a very important distinction,” said Visit Loudoun President and CEO Beth Erickson. “What we’re talking about is the portion of Airbnb that brings in the largest revenue for Airbnb, and those are the full-time operators and multi-unit operators. In our opinion, they’re operating illegal hotels.”
Erickson wrote for the Loudoun Chamber of Commerce’s Chamber Insider blog that in July, there were 919 bedrooms in Loudoun County listed for rent through the online Airbnb platform. That equates to 16 percent of all of the hotel bedrooms in Loudoun, she said. Erickson argues that without consistent regulation, these rooms are often exempt from transparency, transient occupancy taxes, and safety regulations.
“From my perspective, it truly is parity in the marketplace,” Erickson said.
County contracts: “A raw deal”
Supervisors also are asking to change the state-mandated negotiation process for hiring professional services—contractors like consultants, engineers, and architects. As it stands, the county government may not discuss binding cost estimates until it has already selected and ranked the proposals it has received, and then must negotiate with one bidder at a time.
In addition, if negotiations with the top-ranked prospect fall through and the county moves on to the second-ranked, it may not go back to the first-ranked bidder, eliminating any possibility of competition.
“The bidders aren’t really competing at all on price,” said Supervisor Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn), who has pushed for change. “They don’t care. They know our hands are tied to request a price from them until we have said, basically, ‘you are the number one guy in the ranking’ … Negotiating with one is never a position to be in.”
Buona, a vice president at Telos Corporation, oversees bids for federal contracts frequently, where he said he must make firm price offers.
County staff members have proposed several alternatives to Virginia’s current system, including allowing the county to negotiate with up to three top-ranked bidders at once, or to go back to negotiations with the top-ranked bidder after going to the second-ranked. But both Buona and the county staff are wary of the influence of industry interests, which they say have shaped Virginia’s public procurement process over time to give themselves the upper hand in negotiating with state and local governments.
“I know the probability of success here is not overly high,” Buona said. “But I also think it’s important to bring this to the public’s attention, that you guys are getting a raw deal, and it’s important to recognize the influence of these lobbies.”
Fire Code: “One Specific Intent”
The county will ask the state to protect its ability to enforce fire code as the state Board of Housing and Community Development work toward a set of changes that have fire officials alarmed.
Loudoun fire officials say the BHCD’s revisions are heavily skewed toward building industry interests.
“We believe that these changes that are happening are with one specific intent, and that is primarily to weaken the enforcement of the fire code at the local level,” Combined Fire-Rescue System Chief W. Keith Brower Jr. told the Board of Supervisors in May.
Buona said it’s another example of special interests’ power in Richmond.
“And which special interests is it skewed to?” Buona said in May. “The exact same special interest that crammed the proffer bill down our throats earlier this year—the builder. They wield so much influence. This is one more example of their political power, and it’s one more example of them eroding local power and local jurisdictions.”
More Uses for Voter ID?
The board elected not to support an initiative to allow Virginians to use their voter ID for things other than voting.
By including voter identification cards in the definition of state-issued ID, Virginians would be able to use their voter ID in other cases to prove their identity and residency, such as opening a banking account or proving one’s age.
The staff recommended against that, since obtaining a voter ID requires only the applicant’s full name, birthdate, the last four digits of their social security number, and their signature, which is a less rigorous process than the $10 Virginia Identification Card or a driver’s license.
Supervisor Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) attempted unsuccessfully to get the board to include expanding the voter ID in the board’s legislative agenda.
The board will review its legislative agenda again at a public hearing, as well as at meetings with state legislators, and the board’s state legislative priorities could change between now and the end of the 2017 legislative session.