Mashpee Town Meeting May 6, 2019

On Monday, Mashpee Town Meeting passed up a chance to create effective regulation of short-term housing rentals.

Town Meeting in Mashpee on Monday got halfway there on regulating and taxing short-term market rentals in town.

The town needs to finish the job. October Town Meeting can’t come soon enough.

Hundreds of short-term rentals—often private homes, or rooms in private homes—are available in Mashpee through clearinghouses such as AirBnB, HomeAway and FlipKey.

Unlike conventional motel rooms, the private rentals have gone largely untaxed and unregulated in many Massachusetts localities, including Mashpee.

Now the town is taking steps to lasso them in.

On Monday, Town Meeting approved a proposal that provides the town with a 6 percent tax on the market.

The meeting also approved a subsequent article that put 75 percent collected from that tax into a stabilization fund to be used for clean water projects, transportation improvements and affordable housing.

So far, so good.

But then Town Meeting stumbled, failing to accept the board of health’s recommendations to hire an assistant heath agent to monitor a bylaw that the board proposed that would regulate those rentals.

The agent would be paid through the new 6 percent tax.

Part of the bylaw set an annual fee for the landlords of these short-term rentals. The size of the fee had not been set in the bylaw proposal, but instead left to the board of selectmen to set.

One resident questioned town leaders, asking how much the town would charge for the permit fee. Selectmen chairman Carol A. Sherman said the board had yet to set that price.

Another resident said that the regulation and fee would cut down on the already-sparse affordable-housing market.

Town Meeting went on to defeat the proposal, 81-57.

The chairman of the health board, Brian J. Baumgaertel, then requested that the meeting pull the article that would have created the bylaw on short-term rentals to have been enforced by the agent.

Without the new position in the health department, the town would find it difficult to monitor the bylaw. Town Meeting agreed and the article was postponed indefinitely.

Now at least one more summer is slated to pass before a regulatory bylaw goes into effect.

These short-term rentals, often crowded beyond planned capacity, will continue to impact the town’s estuaries and environment. And renters may find their health and safety compromised without the oversight of a health agent.

Residents and members of the finance committee were right to raise questions about details in the proposals for the assistant health agent and the bylaw.

But beyond environmental and health concerns, what assurances do we have that Massachusetts and Mashpee will get all the rental tax revenue due them without local oversight?

This was a case where Town Meeting participants paid too much attention to individual trees and not enough to the forest.

The silver lining in the episode, aside from the passage of the two other articles related to short-term rentals, is that the board of health anticipates probably bringing back the agent and bylaw articles at October Town Meeting. Let’s hope Mashpee, at that time, gets the rest of the way it needs to go on this important issue.

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