SEBRING — How did Eric Zwayer increase tourism tax collections by $23,000 in four months?
“We increased the number of accounts by about 40,” Zwayer, Highlands County’s tax collector, told the Highlands County Tourism Development Council on Thursday. That’s 40 hotels, motels, fishing camps or individual homeowners that weren’t paying last year.
Concerned that the 2 percent tax on hotel rooms and temporary lodgings wasn’t being collected from every landlord by the Florida Department of Revenues, the county commissioners voted in May 2013 to have Zwayer take over tourism tax collections.
Zwayer matched DOR information with local records and for-rent advertisements. All the major hotels were collecting the tax, he told the county commissioners. What was unknown: how many local landlords rent their homes during Race Week or for the summer and don’t collect the 2 percent heads-in-beds tax.
“Education is the key,” Zwayer said last year.
Zwayer also matched the newest DOR list with ones from previous ones and realized several landlords were missing.
“We received a list from the state,” Zwayer said. There were 119 names, but only 81 were active. Today, there are 121 active accounts.
“We took a soft approach,” Zwayer said. “We sent letters and tried to rely on word of mouth for all of the people on the accounts. We let people know there is this tourism tax. It’s worked pretty well so far.”
Two letters were mailed: “It has been brought to our attention that you have or may be renting out your property located in Highlands County...”
A second letter offered a grace period: “If you have not previously collected and remitted Tourism Development Tax and realize you should be, you may register now without penalty or arrears assessments by our office...”
The bottom line: from January to April 2013, the state collected $179,583. For the same four months in 2014, Zwayer’s office collected $202,534, a 13 percent gain.
It’s obvious the numbers are going up but to answer the question of how much, Zwayer said a full year of data would be needed.
Every hotel, campground and individual homeowner should collect a 9 percent tax if they rent their lodgings temporarily, Zwayer said. The tax is not assessed on permanent residents.
“Seven percent for sales tax, and 2 percent for tourism tax,” Zwayer said. Therefore, the renter should pay an extra $90 for a $1,000 rental.
The landlord will need a tax number from the state department of revenue to remit the 7 percent sale tax, Zwayer said. “You need to go online with DOR and fill that out, or you can contact our office if you need help.”
Both taxes can be remitted monthly, quarterly or annually.
“It’s more than playing a gotcha game,” Zwayer said. “We’re trying to make it work well for the public and the commission.”
Tourism Director John Scherlacher said Assistant Director Dana Knight will work in the library for two months and a library assistant will switch places and work in the tourism office will interning in sports marketing.
A Google Analytics report showed the number of sessions on www.visithighlandscounty.com rose 84 percent from the previous year.
“Council, that number is incredible,” Scherlacher said. “They are going to our site to get information.”
Tourism tax collections 2013
The 12 Hours of Sebring race in March not only fills every hotel in Highlands County, but people also rent their homes. Winter visitors usually leave in April, and by June, hotel-motel tax collections drop dramatically. When cold weather returns to the North, however, the tax on temporary lodgings doubles in Highlands County.