The Florida Legislature has approved changes proposed by Rep. Randy Fine to provide more flexibility in how tourist development taxes can be spent.
It’s a measure opposed by some in the local tourism industry, including members of the Brevard County Tourist Development Council. They say the bill would result in reduced spending on advertising and marketing efforts to promote the Space Coast to tourists, thus having a negative effect on the tourism sector.
Tourism is estimated to be a $2.1 billion-a-year industry in Brevard County that is responsible for 26,137 jobs. Hotels, restaurants, retail stores and attractions all benefit.
Fine’s proposal allows tourist taxes to be spent on lagoon projects. Under certain circumstances, the money also could be used for roads, sidewalks, bike paths, boardwalks, drainage projects, solid waste facilities and other capital project that would directly grow tourism.
Brevard County’s 5 percent Tourist Development Tax on hotel rooms and other short-term rentals is among the taxes that would be affected by the changes in the rules.
As the Florida Legislature was ending its 2018 session last week, the provisions of what was a stand-alone bill sponsored by Fine, a Palm Bay Republican, were inserted into a larger, 103-page tax reform package, House Bill 7087. The tax reform bill dealt with everything from back-to-school “sales tax holiday” on Aug. 3, 4 and 5 for the purchase of clothing and school supplies, to tax breaks for Florida’s struggling citrus industry.
If Gov. Rick Scott signs the bill — which Fine expects — it would become law on July 1.
“I think it’s very exciting” that the tourism tax changes were approved, Fine said.
Fine said he approached Rep. Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast — who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee and sponsored the tax package — to request that Fine’s proposals be added to the tax bill, and Renner agreed.
Fine said this process is not unusual in Tallahassee. For example, once a bill is approved by one House committee, it is eligible to become an amendment to another bill, which is what happened in this case. Fine’s tourism tax bill (House Bill 585) was approved by three House committees and the full House. A companion bill (Senate Bill 658) was approved by two Senate committees, but did not reach the Senate floor for a vote.
Fine said the bill doesn’t mandate that tourism tax money be steered toward projects to clean up the lagoon, but it does give counties more “home-rule power” to decide how the money is spent.
Fine said he hopes Brevard County commissioners would direct tourist tax money to lagoon restoration projects, considering the condition of the lagoon.
“People are scared, and we need the local politicians to do their job,” Fine said. “I hope every Brevardian will join me in calling on our local County Commission to take advantage of this new legislation, and reassess where we will get the greatest bang for our buck in spending tourism development taxes. The ball is now in their court. The bill allows a portion of the tourist tax fund to take care of our No. 1 tourist asset in the county. The Legislature has authorized a new funding source to protect the Indian River Lagoon.”
Fine repeatedly has criticized the Brevard County Tourist Development Council and the County Commission for approving use of $14.4 million in tourist tax money to help pay for various proposed capital projects. These included adding artificial turf to the soccer and lacrosse fields at Viera Regional Park; upgrading the Palm Bay Nature Center and Campground at Palm Bay Regional Park; and developing a sports arena in downtown Titusville. Fine calls them “pork-barrel projects.”
“Saving the Indian River Lagoon is the greatest governmental challenge facing Brevard County today,” Fine said, in a statement he released following passage of the tax reform bill.
“The sewage spills have contributed to another brown algae bloom, and all signs point to another massive fish kill on the horizon,” Fine said, alluding to Brevard County discharged 20 million gallons of diluted sewage into a canal that flows to the Banana River to prevent sewage from backing up in homes, during and after Hurricane Irma.
“With the passage of this legislation, preserving the Indian River Lagoon is now on par with all other Tourist Development Tax spending, including, for example, beach renourishment, which the County Commission spends millions of our tourism dollars on each year,” Fine said.
Puneet “PK” Kapur, chairman of the Brevard County Tourist Development Council, said he is “disappointed” that the measure “was put through at the last moment” of the legislative session by becoming an amendment to another bill.
Kapur contends Fine’s plan is “an attack on the tourism industry” that is “unnecessary.”
Kapur said that, while the lagoon’s health is important for the tourism industry, he believes the Tourist Development Council “won’t support this at all.”
Money to help pay for lagoon projects should come from other state and county funding sources, said Kapur, who is general manager of the 84-room Holiday Inn Express and Suites in Palm Bay.
The bill was approved 93-12 in the House and 33-3 in the Senate on Sunday, with all of Brevard’s legislators voting in favor.
House Bill 7087 makes various changes in the Tourist Development Tax statute.
Lagoon included: The bill inserts the words “lagoon,” “estuary” and “channel” among the current language in the Tourism Development Tax statute, which already allows spending tourist tax money to restore beaches, beach parks, inland lakes and rivers.
“While many believed that lagoons and estuaries were already covered by existing statute, Brevard County has taken the position that, because those words were not implicitly included, they were not,” Fine said. “This makes it explicit.”
New infrastructure provisions: The bill creates new approved uses for tourism tax dollars — infrastructure that would have a direct effect on tourism, including roads, sidewalks, bike paths and boardwalks, as well as drainage, potable water, sanitary sewer and solid waste facilities.
In order for local governments to engage in these projects, they will have to meet six criteria:
• The county must raise at least $10 million a year from the tourism tax. (Brevard County collected $13.6 million from the tourist tax in the budget year that ended Sept. 30.)
• The projects must be recommended by the local tourist development council.
• The county government board, such as the Brevard County Commission, must approve funding of the project by a vote of at least two-thirds of its members.
• The tourist development council must pay for an independent professional analysis, demonstrating the positive impact of the infrastructure project on the tourist-related businesses in the county.
• No more than 70 percent of the project cost can come from tourism tax dollars.
• At least 40 percent of the tourism tax money collected must be spent to promote and advertise tourism.
Dave Berman is government editor at FLORIDA TODAY.
Contact Berman at 321-242-3649 or [email protected]
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