Expand use of tourist tax, Manatee County TDC tells county commission

The Manatee County Tourist Development Council, from left to right: Doug Copeland, Ed Chiles, Carol Whitmore, Jiten Patel, Vernon DeSear and Jack Rynerson.
The Manatee County Tourist Development Council, from left to right: Doug Copeland, Ed Chiles, Carol Whitmore, Jiten Patel, Vernon DeSear and Jack Rynerson.

The Manatee County Tourist Development Council would like to see more flexibility in uses for tourist development tax dollars, and on Monday it recommended the county take the issue to state delegates for a possible legislative change.

The Florida tourist development tax use legislation was written to assure the tariff is used only to promote and advertise tourism in the state. The passage last year of House Bill 7099 allowed three Panhandle counties to use up to 10 percent of tourist development tax proceeds for public safety, “including emergency medical services and law enforcement services, which are needed to address impacts related to increased tourism and visitors to an area,” according to the legislation.

Provisions in the bill limit it to Bay, Okaloosa and Walton counties. Manatee County can, as the law is currently written, reimburse law enforcement or public safety costs using tourist development taxes but only on a per-event basis.

TDC members think greater flexibility could help Manatee County deal with tourism-related impacts, like traffic, on an ongoing basis.

“Like for 50 days a year, if you could have drones up and say, ‘Here’s the choke points,’ ” said Manatee County hotelier, restaranteur and TDC member Ed Chiles. “You could have people in orange vests, not necessarily the police, but they’re traffic people, and could that make a difference? I don’t know, but if you tried it, I’d love to see money go for that because everybody on the island wants to see traffic improved.”

Chiles’ example is one of many possible uses for tourist development taxes if the legislation changes.

Florida 2017 legislative session: March 7-May 5

Carol Whitmore, the TDC chair and a Manatee County Commissioner, also is in favor of expanding the tourist tax uses. But she and Chiles both said they needed to wait on further guidance before deciding how much of a priority the issue should be.

“They’re going to have to put the language together to see,” Chiles said. “What are they going to do? Is this going to compromise other priorities because it will never get through because the Disney World guys are going to crush it? So that’s the politics of it that they were pointing out to us and rightly so.”

Chiles was referring to Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau executive director Elliott Falcione providing council members with some political context.

“Stakeholders, like attractions, hoteliers and restaurants are going to work hard to protect that tax so they can continue to work hard to promote this beautiful state,” Falcione said. “If they start amending that and it starts to be used for different uses, it could compromise how the state is marketed and promoted.”

Falcione made clear he has no opinion on amending the tourist tax use legislation, but he wants TDC members to be aware of possible obstacles before deciding whether to recommend pursuing the amendment as a top legislative session priority. Both Falcione and, in prior interviews, Visit Sarasota County executive director Virginia Haley point to sales tax as a possible source for providing resources to alleviate traffic issues and other congestion-related problems.

It would allow for more flexibility and especially now that it's been opened up; it's only fair that hopefully we can use it for other things that are needed for tourism and for visitors

Carol Whitmore, Manatee County Tourist Development Council chair and Manatee County Commissioner

Last week, Anna Maria Island representatives approached the county commission with concerns about infrastructure needed during the next 15 years to support Manatee County’s ever-growing tourism industry and the impacts it has on the island’s four municipalities: Anna Maria, Holmes Beach, Bradenton Beach and Longboat Key.

The Manatee County Commission did not commit funding to any of the island municipalities last week. They expect if the tourist development tax legislation is opened up further to assist with public safety costs, it could help the island mayors defray those costs and instead put the money toward infrastructure improvements.

The Manatee County Commission will discuss its legislative platform at its regular meeting at 9 a.m. on Tuesday at the Manatee County Commission chambers on the first floor of the county building, 1112 Manatee Ave. W.

Janelle O’Dea: 941-745-7095, @jayohday