Editorial: Don’t collect taxes you never asked for in the first place

In July, the Suffolk County Comptroller’s office released an audit showing that, due to low staffing levels, the county treasurer did not adequately monitor the county’s hotel-motel tax program in 2013. Therefore, Comptroller John Kennedy wrote, the county had not realized maximum revenues.

The audit announcement stated that the comptroller’s office would assume the responsibility of monitoring and collecting the 3 percent hotel-motel tax, which, as its title implies, had previously been levied only on commercial establishments. Months later, Mr. Kennedy told this newspaper the county would extend that tax to short-term rental landlords. What Mr. Kennedy did not tell us at that time was that his office had already begun collecting that tax from those same landlords -— and was even demanding back taxes in some cases.

While the county is within its legal right to pursue taxes retroactively, such an aggressive effort to collect funds never before requested from landlords seems wholly unfair.

Landlords with whom we discussed the h otel-motel tax told us they didn’t mind adding that amount to the rent they charge for their rooms and they intend to comply with the county moving forward. Mr. Kennedy has said this move is designed to level the playing field for Suffolk’s hotels and motels, which have been paying the tax all along.

But what seemed like a logical move on the part of the comptroller now looks like an overreach as the cash-strapped county attempts to collect money it believes should have been paid in previous years. And it should come as no surprise that this is yet another example of Suffolk County reaching into the pockets of residents of the East End — where renting out rooms for weekend getaways is most prevalent — to help pay its bills.

How does the county tell people they’re responsible for a tax it never asked for — and they were never told applied to them — in the first place?

If it’s really about leveling the playing field, Mr. Kennedy, a former legislator from Nesconset in his first year as comptroller, would be wise to stop trying to collect retroactive hotel-motel taxes from short-term landlords. He’s only creating an unfair advantage for a county that has admitted it was asleep at the switch.