On the first anniversary of her arrival as executive director of the Gulf County Tourist Development Council, Jennifer Jenkins provided her advisory board on Tuesday with some celebratory numbers.
April bed tax collections were up 11.79 percent compared to the prior year. That means an increase in six of the first seven months of the fiscal year – a 15 percent increase from the same period last year – and an increase in revenue of over $35,000 through the first seven months.
In addition, the TDC has non-allocated funds for the current fiscal year of over $15,000 – based on growth projections of 4 percent per month the remainder of the fiscal year – and visitors to the TDC website have exploded.
There were 81 percent more visitors to the website in May than the same month in 2012, 69 percent growth just from April. The number of visitors to the Welcome Center is also up 44 percent.
“Today is my one-year anniversary and it has been a great year,” Jenkins told the advisory board. “Thank you for the support you have shown me and my team.”
Also noted during the meeting was that the first recycling can for the pilot project to be established during the summer at Salinas Park will be in place sometime in the next week.
The pilot project is intended for Waste Management to gauge the viability of establishing a recycling program in the county.
“It is only going to work if there is mandatory garbage pickup countywide,” said board member Ronald Pickett. “Forty percent of the county does not have mandatory pickup. We have to push our commissioners to enact mandatory pickup. We have to push this forward.”
Port St. Joe Mayor Mel Magidson, also a TDC board member, agreed.
“The city is discussing this as well,” Magidson said, noting the city embarked on a recycling program last year that has been less than a rousing success. “I agree that it will not work until there is mandatory garbage pickup.
“This is something the city and the county will jointly have to work on.”
The council also engaged in a spirited discussion about law enforcement presence on the beaches, the county’s leash laws for dogs and beach driving.
The fuel was a suggestion from Jenkins to consider adding a half-cent or full cent to the 4 cents bed tax paid by visitors. The additional funds would help boost Gulf County Sheriff Office’s ability to patrol on the beach, where stakeholders emphasized there are real problems with driving and unleashed dogs.
Problems that have been compounded for Sheriff Mike Harrison by a rash of burglaries in St. Joe Beach and St. Joseph Peninsula and a tight budget and small staff.
Harrison noted that he typically has a single deputy to patrol the south end of the county and that with budget projections to the county indicating a further drop in revenue he is hamstrung on having more consistent patrols.
Harrison also noted that adding to the bed tax would mean that visitors would help pay for extra patrols.
“This would be a huge help to us to get that person on the cape,” Harrison said. “The presence of law enforcement in a community can be a real deterrent.”
Pickett opposed adding to the bed tax. He said homeowners and business owners along the tourist corridor already pay more than their fair share of taxes to the county without receiving the requisite services.
He also echoed comments that have been made frequently by County Commissioner Tan Smiley about consolidating law enforcement between the county and city of Port St. Joe; that, he suggested, would help provide extra coverage on the beach.
Board member Geri Anderson said the fines for violating leash and beach driving laws should be stiffer and suggested that the majority of those living on the cape and Indian Pass are not in favor of allowing driving on the beach.
She also said the Board of County Commissioners needs to step to the plate to ensure the Sheriff’s Office has the resources to fully patrol the beaches.
Board member Tony Whitfield said his priority was “protecting the brand” and the condition of the beaches was something the TDC must address.
“Regardless of how it is funded, it is an issue,” Jenkins said.
The board decided to table the issue until the next board meeting to allow staff to gather more information.