Percy Leads Charge Against Taxpayers Renting Tourist Rooms In Private Homes

by Mike Hudson

High-priced hotel rooms are what John Percy’s all about.

The globe-trotting Percy, CEO of the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp., typically spends your money — sent to him by Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster — on five-star accommodations when he visits London, Delhi, Mumbai, Prague, Berlin, Geneva, Milan and other exotic locales. He flies first-class only, and pays himself a whopping salary of $140,000 a year — plus $200,000 in travel and expenses — out of an NTCC budget, which benefits from $2 million annually in taxpayer money.

He takes about 40 vacations a year on your dime.

But now he has a problem. It seems that some 300 homeowners in Niagara Falls are renting rooms to visitors here through a website called Airbnb. And they’re not paying bed taxes, which make up around half of his budget.

He can’t come right out and say that, of course. So instead he says he wants to shut down the mom-and-pop operations out of a fundamentally decent human concern about the safety of tourists in Niagara Falls.

“It’s part of our visitor realm so we need to look at it and make sure it’s being done properly,” he said on Friday. “We’re not here to wipe them off the map or excuse them. It will be part of our future. What needs to be looked at is the proper fire codes and insurance regulations.”

Percy is pressuring Dyster and the city council to pass some sort of law that would ensure the continued flow of tourist dollars to his bank account.

Last month, Percy attended a presentation by lobbyists from the state Hospitality & Tourism Association (NYSHTA), that was aimed at shutting down the ability of private property owners from renting rooms on a short-term basis to tourists.

A brochure from the event suggested the “short-term online rental market … poses a threat to consumers, neighborhoods and businesses.” The event was sponsored co-sponsored by the NTCC.

Hotel-industry lobbyist Jan Marie Chesterton told the hotel owners in attendance that people renting rooms in their homes pose a grave threat.

“What we take issue with is the uneven playing field that’s created … without the proper regulation and inspections,” she said, adding a “legitimate hotel operator lives under great scrutiny.”

Chesterton said her organization hopes to have a bill submitted in the state legislature that would fundamentally outlaw the practice by the end of its session in June.

Airbnb is a website for people to list, find, and rent lodging. Founded in August 2008 and headquartered in San Francisco, California, the company is privately owned and is in the business of matching vacationers and business travelers with locals who want to rent out a room, apartment or house.

It has over 1,500,000 listings in 34,000 cities and 190 countries. But typically, in Niagara Falls, this highly successful mom-and-pop business has become the center of controversy.

According to the Airbnb website, there are more than 300 people in Niagara Falls offering accommodations. It is a way to bring in a little extra cash here in the most heavily taxed municipality in the most heavily taxed state in the country. Nobody’s getting rich, nobody’s even making a living. But every little bit helps in the city’s moribund economy.

Perhaps the best-known Airbnb host in Niagara Falls is city Councilwoman Kristen Grandinetti, who – according to the reviews given by lodgers in her Airbnb profile – does a bang up job of providing hospitality Niagara Falls style.

An online campaign directed against her in recent weeks finally forced her to apply for status as a legal bed and breakfast.

“Everybody can sleep tonight and look for something else to torment me about,” she wrote. “I filled out the B and B paperwork with code enforcement … and I will not be giving anyone the names of other airbnb hosts. Because of my position I am subject to SELECTIVE ENFORCEMENT. But it’s worth it to be allowed to serve this community as a council member,” she wrote on her Facebook page.

The move will mean that Grandinetti will now have to pay the bed tax, just as Carl Paladino does at his swank Giacomo Hotel downtown.

“Ca-ching,” John Percy thought to himself.

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