The Board of County Commissioners last week expressed support for moving to a fifth cent in bed tax.
The Gulf County Tourist Development Council remains divided on the issue.
The TDC advisory council will meet again the first week of August to take up the issue again, but the TDC is taking a deliberate approach, with its budget committee, which met last Friday, continuing to examine options.
The advisory council was philosophically divided on adding to the bed tax during its most recent meeting.
The idea is to implement an additional penny to fund a “beach safety program”, a permissible use of the revenue in state law, according to county attorney Jeremy Novak.
A central component of that plan, under the proposal provided the TDC board to add the penny, was funding equipment and training for two Gulf County Sheriff’s deputies who would be assigned exclusively to the tourist corridors.
Those two new positions would be funded by the Sheriff’s Office.
Gulf County Sheriff Mike Harrison told county commissioners last week had did not have the resources to bolster patrols or add deputies at this time.
Harrison told commissioners there are three deputies patrolling the entire county at most times. In the city of Port St. Joe, Police Chief David Barnes last week told city commissioners he has two officers on patrol at most times.
County commissioners and the TDC board shared concerns about the impact of declining budgets on law enforcement patrols, with the BOCC voicing support for the additional penny as a potential solution.
Harrison noted last week that crime in the county had increased 30 percent each of the past two years and there have been reports this year of a high rate of burglaries, to homes and vehicles, in the tourist corridor.
“That is due to a lack of exposure and officers in the community,” Harrison said.
Last week included a drive-by shooting in St. Joe Beach; all involved lived locally.
The key, for the TDC and executive director Jennifer Jenkins is protecting the gains of the past year to build for the future.
Bed tax receipts have climbed rapidly the past two years and the TDC is projecting another jump in the coming fiscal year.
“We have to protect our brand,” Jenkins said.
This is particularly important as Jenkins and her team continues to roll out research, programs and funding directed at expanding the brand across a host of platforms to transform the county from a three-month summer hot spot to a year-round “boutique” destination, as she has consistently told the TDC board.
The TDC must weigh that protection against two major concerns voiced by the board.
One was jeopardizing the market price, with Gulf County perceived as a more affordable alternative to other locations along the Gulf Coast.
The other was taxing: should the TDC be underwriting, in part, a function of county government by taxing visitors when some collectors assert that services compared to tax collections are already off kilter.
After Friday’s budget committee meeting, Jenkins said the TDC continues to examine options, as was recommended by several members of the advisory board who are also members of the budget committee.
Last week, County Commissioner Warren Yeager, who also sits on the TDC advisory board, raised the issue during budget meetings but generally deferred to a TDC decision.
“I’ve got to think of about the ad valorem taxpayer,” Yeager said. “I’ve got to look at alternative sources of revenue.”
Novak also emphasized that the additional penny might not be a solution for next fiscal year due to the work required in meeting the state statutes mandating how bed tax revenue can be used.
To implement the tax for the coming year, Novak noted to both boards, the TDC would have to craft, adopt and begin to implement a “beach safety program” by the end of the year in order to add the additional cent for 2014.