The Gulf County Tourist Development Council advisory board on Monday engaged in a spirited and educational discussion about the potential for adding to the county’s bed tax.
The consensus that emerged was that the TDC and Board of County Commissioners must collaborate on how best to address issues of beach driving, trash on the beach, animals not on a leash and moving to a “leave no trace” policy for county beaches.
A proposal to add a fifth cent to the county’s bed tax was discussed at the previous TDC board meeting, and a county budget committee meeting, as a method to increase the presence of officers, specifically Gulf County Sheriff’s Office deputies, on the beaches.
Gulf County Sheriff Mike Harrison said given his budget constraints he could not fund additional patrols on the beach to increase enforcement of existing county ordinances.
County attorney Jeremy Novak said Monday that state law governing such agencies provides the TDC to assist by creating a beach safety program. He said once a plan was in place, it would provide opportunities for the TDC to act.
The framework of that plan, said TDC executive director Jennifer Jenkins, would be to purchase equipment and fund training, including water rescue, for officers to create a combination code enforcement/law enforcement/“brand” ambassador officer, while the GCSO would fund the two additional full-time officers to patrol the beaches.
Tourism is up in Gulf County and trending ahead of neighboring counties of Bay and Walton, Jenkins said. Through June bed tax collections are up 13 percent and every month in the fiscal year has finished in the black save for November 2012.
But, Jenkins said, the condition of the beaches is a nagging problem, with trash, tents, grills and other items left behind.
Dogs were off leashes as the county promotes pet-friendly beaches and the ability for even safety vehicles to reach portions of the beach was compromised.
Sgt. Chris Buchanan of the GCSO also noted that the beaches area continues to experience a problem with car and home break-ins, more than a dozen over the holiday weekend alone.
“If we don’t get ahead of this it could get out of control very quickly,” Jenkins said. “We re-launched a brand in February and all indications are that it is resonating. We need to manage the brand.”
How to do that was where the board lacked a consensus.
Ronald Pickett and Alyson Gerlach each expressed a reluctance or outright opposition to any increase in the bed tax.
For Gerlach, the issue was simply the costs to bed tax collectors and their guests.
“We are a price-sensitive market,” Gerlach said. “When we talk about raising bed taxes we are going to lose customers.”
Pickett added, “We’ve lost revenue the past seven years because the economy sucked. We are starting to see that change. We are a thrift brand.”
County Commissioner Warren Yeager said as an elected official he must look at the broader picture. Given the county’s own budget straightjacket, the BOCC was forced to look at options other than property taxes to fund services.
“We have to look at alternative sources of revenue to fix the problems we need to fix,” Yeager said. “I can’t justify spending (property taxes) when most of the problems are caused by tourists.
“We all agree there is a problem. We need to fix the problem. At the end of the day we do need to protect our brand.”
Yeager said the county could not continue to provide required services at its current funding level and property taxes were almost certain to rise.
But he added that the county was also looking at user fees, service fees and other sources of income.
Pickett said citizens and visitors did not want to be “user-feed to death” and he opposed the county asking another entity, the TDC, to provide services the county should be funding.
The suggestion was also made that while the county had ordinances on the books for issues such as beach driving and maintaining a pet on a leash, the fines should be more substantial.
Pat Hardman, president of the Coastal Community Association, said the county advertises pristine beaches which are not currently so pristine after a busy holiday weekend. She also noted that tourists create most of the problems and should foot the bill.
“Our visitors are leaving a mess,” Hardman said. “Why should my (property taxes) go for that? I think it is totally justified to put on the backs not of our property owners but on the backs of tourists.”
She said it was not logical that one additional penny in bed taxes would lead to fewer visitors.
Pickett agreed that he would like to ultimately see “leave no trace” as county policy, but was against the TDC subsidizing a portion of the county’s budget by adding to the bed tax.
He said he supported a short-term solution – a fee for guests during the summer aimed at bringing about leave not trace, for example, but not funding year round – and wondered if the TDC didn’t have the revenue or savings to address the problem in the short-term.
“I am against an increase across the board,” Pickett said, adding that the does not believe the county’s tourist corridor receives the services commensurate to the amount of its tax base, which represents roughly 38 percent of the entire county’s property tax collections.
“I’m against a long-term commitment via a tax.”
Board member Patty Fisher said the TDC budget committee should look at the TDC budget and examine if there was money to be moved toward the beach safety program.
Warriner summed up the discussion and asked for the TDC budget committee to meet next week with the full advisory board meeting after the first county budget meeting next week.
“We have had a growing budget,” Warriner said. “Maybe it is time to reprioritize. Maybe we don’t need the extra penny. If it is a short-term deal, maybe we can dip into savings. Adding a new program at this time of austerity may not be a good idea.
“We aren’t the only source of funds. It’s smart to look at other sources, such as (a state agency) grant. We have to be very focused on what (state law) says we can use the money on. Do we have a bad enough problem that it will impact our image?”