Manatee may seek to use tourist taxes for public safety

People enjoy the sun and sand at the Manatee County Public Beach. 
 GRANT JEFFERIES/Bradenton Herald File Photograph
People enjoy the sun and sand at the Manatee County Public Beach. GRANT JEFFERIES/Bradenton Herald File Photograph Grant Jefferies

MANATEE -- After seeing how a new state taxation law will work in three Panhandle counties, Manatee County may seek to be included during next year's legislative session.

A provision in House Bill 7099 allows up to 10 percent of tourist development taxes in "certain coastal counties" to be used 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.

To receive a reimbursement under the legislation, counties must generate a minimum of $10 million in annual proceeds from any tax or combination of taxes, have at least three municipalities and have an estimated population of less than 225,000 residents.

The combination of the "coastal counties" phrasing and the population requirement limits the bill to Bay, Okaloosa and Walton counties, according to the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association's spring 2016 magazine.

Manatee County's population, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau estimate, is more than 360,000 residents, excluding it from HB 7099's allowed uses.

Though Manatee County's appeal to be included in the bill still needs to be "fleshed out," Commissioner and Tourist Development Council Chairwoman Carol Whitmore is in favor of the idea.

"We have all kinds of events all over the county," Whitmore said. She mentioned the Riverwalk Regatta, Fourth of July fireworks, IMG sporting events, company conferences and spring break as examples.

"Why shouldn't the tourism taxes help pay for some of those costs for public safety? You want citizens who come here for those events to have a good experience."

For years Whitmore has noticed the strain on public safety resources during peak tourism season, she said, particularly when she was mayor of Holmes Beach.

Jean Peelen, Holmes Beach city commissioner and member of the council, said the legislation "will certainly be a priority in my city."

Just across the county line, however, the president of Visit Sarasota has a contrasting opinion.

"It was one of the worst pieces of legislation we've seen in a long time," Virginia Haley said. "Most of the terrible provisions were stripped. Unfortunately as the bill passed, it did allow three Panhandle counties to, if their TDCs and commissions approve it, expend funds on public safety."

Haley thinks the public already pays enough for public safety services through sales taxes, and the "hotels they stay in are producing millions and millions of dollars in revenue for the county." Tourist development taxes, in Haley's mind, are for promoting tourism and bringing new dollars into the community.

In a similar vein, the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association calls the legislation "an assault on the Tourist Development Tax this year."

Whitmore and Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, both say the idea is early in the process and won't be officially proposed until next year's legislative session.

Janelle O'Dea, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095 or follow her on Twitter @jayohday.