Marathon Mayor Luis Gonzalez, left, and council members Jeff Smith and Kenny Matlock address resident concerns. ALEX RICKERT/Keys Weekly

Any questions about community interest in a second, more interactive monthly meeting of the Marathon City Council were swiftly answered on Tuesday night: even those arriving on time found every available seat already filled.

With the highly charged topic of vacation rentals on the agenda for the Jan. 24 workshop, discussions were more civil and informative than most expected, with a thoughtful exchange between residents, staff and elected officials throughout the evening.

Marathon attorney Steve Williams opened the evening by reiterating the “good news and bad news” of Marathon’s vacation rental ordinance: the city adopted its vacation rental rules in 2010, prior to the enactment of a 2011 Florida state statute essentially preventing municipalities from restricting rentals in any way. Local ordinances adopted prior to the June 1, 2011 deadline were grandfathered in, but any attempt to modify Marathon’s existing ordinance would cause the city to forfeit that protection.

“Virtually every other municipal attorney I’ve ever spoken to, or spoken in front of, has the exact same opinion,” Williams told the crowd, quoting Pasco County attorney Jeff Steinsnyder’s stance that “once you start playing with (your ordinance), you lose that grandfather. The (Florida) legislature has taken away your ability to adopt a new vacation rental ordinance.”

The translation? If the current ordinance is struck down, any rental property in Marathon could be legally rented on a nightly basis (the current minimum is 7 days), and the city would lose all ability to locally enforce rental laws. Complaints would instead be referred to one of roughly eight state Department of Business and Professional Regulation enforcement officers covering the entirety of South Florida – with the closest one residing in Miami.

Monroe County Tax Collector Sam Steele provided a detailed overview of the tax implications for all transient rentals in the county – defined as 30 days or less – and discussed his office’s ongoing efforts to identify and collect appropriate tax revenues from illegal unregistered rentals.

If caught, an illegal rental that refuses to become compliant with current regulations and registrations or provide their rental records could face a steep assessment from Steele’s office. Such an assessment could reach back up to 36 months to levy taxes based on a nightly rental at the property’s currently advertised rate. Continuing to ignore communications from the tax collector’s office may result in a lien being placed on the property as well as freezing of bank accounts and a referral to the state attorney’s office for criminal prosecution.

Of the 12.5% in taxes collected from rental properties, 7.5% goes to the Florida Department of Revenue as a sales tax, while 5% comes to Steele’s office – 4% for a tourist development tax and 1% for a tourist impact tax. How that money is spent is governed at the state level, not locally.

Invested residents filled every available seat in the Marathon council chambers on Tuesday night, with dozens more standing along the walls. ALEX RICKERT/Keys Weekly

“This past year was record-breaking, by far. Close to $90 million (collected from the tourist development tax), which was 30% higher than a previous record in 2021,” Steele said.

With comments from several residents that the skyrocketing revenues and resulting taxes should be able to provide for additional code enforcement resources, City Manager George Garrett pointed out that the vast majority of the money is allocated to the Monroe County Tourist Development Council and spent for items like Keys advertising and capital projects at tourism-related venues.

City Code Director Ted Lozier gave an update on Marathon’s code enforcement efforts, particularly concerning newly-purchased software to identify illegal rentals within the city. With 93 properties under investigation, Lozier said the department took 20 properties to code hearings within the last year, collecting associated fines of roughly $50,000.

More than a dozen citizens offered comments to the council largely centered around enforcement issues and follow-through with common complaint topics like trash cans, noise complaints, parking and rentals crowded past their capacities. Some championed the idea of more lengthy educational materials required in all rentals, and most called on the city to do whatever it takes to add code enforcement personnel, specifically demanding night and weekend coverage to identify violators and address complaints immediately. 

Several sharply criticized the city’s perceived pattern of allowing those who break the rules to remedy their violations after the fact without significant repercussions – and the current ordinance’s “three-strike rule” that allows for up to three violations per year at each rental property.

“The house directly across from me put in two extra bedrooms that had been closets without a permit,” said resident Michelle Franck. “The VRBO app had always listed the capacity at 10, and then it changed to 14. … Did the rental change back to 10? No. What eventually happened was they were granted a permit, and then they legally added the two extra bedrooms. … Did they lose money? No. Did they break the rules? Absolutely.”

“You can’t enforce the laws with the computer,” said Mike Leonard. “We need to divide the city into quadrants and assign a code enforcement person to each quadrant. … You can’t enforce 8 to 5, five days a week, without the right amount of people on the ground.”

Others like Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters owner Ben Daughtry said that while only high-end waterfront properties were historically used as vacation rentals, the group is now expanding into dry lot homes that would otherwise house Marathon’s workforce.

Monroe County Tax Collector Sam Steele, left, discusses the tax implications and potential consequences for noncompliant vacation rental owners. ALEX RICKERT/Keys Weekly

“I think that licenses need to increase, and as licenses increase, it’s possible that homes that aren’t renting for as often or as much per week will go back to workforce housing,” Daughtry suggested.

“We have tried to start self-policing ourselves,” said vacation rental manager Mallory Pinto. “If someone calls our office and says hey, we’ve got a dry lot house, my answer is no. … That’s a message that we have talked about internally as all different companies and said we’re not taking them because we don’t want to lose our neighbors.”

“I would just like to know what’s next,” Franck asked the council. “What can we all sitting here expect from you all?”

“I am going to tell you today that I will be getting with our city manager and our code director for the immediate hiring of several more code enforcement officers,” said Marathon Mayor Luis Gonzalez. “That will include, in their job description, working on the weekends.”

“You hear a lot, ‘Take it up with Tallahassee.’ Please, take it up with Tallahassee,” added councilman Jeff Smith. “Communicate not just to our reps but to every single rep in this state. Write them, make sure they hear your voice that you want local control back. And then if we get local control, the question for you to ask is, what are we willing to do with it?”

Gonzalez further promised to add a vacation rental discussion as a standing agenda item each month at council meetings “until everything gets in line.”

Alex Rickert made the perfectly natural career progression from dolphin trainer to newspaper editor in 2021 after freelancing for Keys Weekly while working full time at Dolphin Research Center. A resident of Marathon since 2015, he fell in love with the Florida Keys community by helping multiple organizations and friends rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Irma. An avid runner, actor, and spearfisherman, he spends as much of his time outside of work on or under the sea having civil disagreements with sharks.