The Gulf County Tourist Development Council on Tuesday approved moving ahead with crafting a beach safety program.

The Gulf County Tourist Development Council on Tuesday approved moving ahead with crafting a beach safety program.

How the agency will fund the program remains a philosophical issue.

Whether funded by an additional one cent in bed tax or funded out of TDC reserves, the consensus among advisory board members was that a priority must be placed on implementing a program to enhance beach safety, ordinances pertaining to beach driving and animal leash laws while improving beach cleanliness.

“We all agree it is something that needs to take place,” said board member Tony Whitfield. “It has to be a priority.”

However, there remains board resistance to proposal from the Board of County Commissioners to implement a 5th cent on the bed tax to implement the program.

That suggestion has been offered by Commissioner Warren Yeager as a way to shift some revenue burden off property tax payers. He has championed the additional penny as a way to help “subsidize the sheriff’s budget.”

County attorney Jeremy Novak said the responsibility of the BOCC would be to determine revenue – a super-majority of four votes on the BOCC would be needed to add the new penny – and for the TDC to provide the strategic plan and budget for spending the funds.

Novak said the BOCC would be within its discretion to pass an ordinance adding the additional cent, with or without TDC support, but that the TDC would be charged with actual implementation of the plan.

The plan would also include a component of how the plan would promote tourism in the county.

TDC board member Ronald Pickett, who also serves as chairman of the TDC budget committee, said the committee had voted to table a decision on the one cent while exploring options for funding a beach safety program.

“We tabled the idea and we will try to fund this out of our reserves,” Pickett said. “Our county needs to step up somehow, but there are other ways to fund this with than the one cent.”

The dynamics of what is possible is clearer, TDC executive director Jennifer Jenkins said.

Bay County uses an additional penny to contract for officers, not on-duty law enforcement, to enforce Leave No Trace. Walton County uses an additional penny to fund code enforcement officers.

“We’ve learned the best approach is not to fund a deputy,” Jenkins said.

Two potential solutions were discussed as methods to bring down costs.

The South Gulf County Volunteer Fire Department, which offered to implement just such a program three years ago, moved ahead and has fashioned such a program on its own.

As Chief David Sapte said, the program has meant the purchase of equipment and vehicles to facilitate water and beach rescues. The department patrols the beach 50 hours a week and provides education on water safety and beach ordinances to visitors.

As the number of tourists have increased, the costs of maintain the program has increased and Sapte wondered if the TDC might be able to help with funding for fuel and equipment maintenance and the potential of creating code enforcement officers from the department’s ranks was discussed to provide them some enforcement powers.

Additional, board member Jeri Ashcraft, whose husband sits on the Board of Trustees for Gulf Coast State College, said there was also a possibility of the college’s law enforcement training program to provide interns for beach patrols.

The emphasis, regardless of the mechanism and funding, must be on improving beach safety and cleanliness while providing enforcement teeth for existing county ordinances.

“This is something we need to address,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins was tasked with drafting a beach safety plan and budget once costs were gleaned.

Revenue on the upswing

June continued this fiscal year’s trend of spiking bed tax revenues with the TDC reporting an increase of 12.16 percent in June, leaving revenue up 12.65 for the year as the TDC staff seeks to match a goal of increasing bed tax revenue by 15 percent this fiscal year.

In June, total collections were $167,756.71, representing nearly a third of receipts for the year. For the first nine months collections are tracking more than $56,000 above last year.

“We are pacing very well,” Jenkins said. “We had a good month (in June). The numbers are looking pretty good.”

Lodging providers Pickett and Alyson Gerlach said July was a strong month and the fall, with an emphasis on promotion from the TDC, is also looking good.

“August looks very good and September is up from last year,” Pickett said.

 Jenkins said she and her staff were examining using some $20,000 in unencumbered funds to market the fall shoulder season.

The bed tax numbers reflect an overall increase in web site traffic, visitors to the Welcome Center and visitors and fans on social media such as Facebook.