The rift between Florida Rep. Randy Fine and the local tourism industry is growing wider, judging by comments some Brevard County Tourist Development Council members made about Fine this past week.
Tourism officials are upset about a bill the Palm Bay-area Republican is pushing that would increase the flexibility in how tourist development taxes could be collected. Under Fine’s proposal, such taxes could be used for certain infrastructure projects that would benefit tourism.
Among the projects the bill would cover are ones dealing with transportation, sanitary sewer, solid waste, drainage, potable water and pedestrian facilities.
The tourism officials question Fine’s motives in sponsoring the bill.
The bill was approved in the House by a 93-20 vote.
Among those voting against the bill were the three other House members whose districts include Brevard County — Thad Altman, Tom Goodson and Rene Plasencia — all Republicans like Fine. Fourteen other no votes were cast by House members whose districts include five other counties with tourism as a focus — Broward, Miami-Dade, Orange, Pinellas and Volusia.
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 bill.
As Fine was explaining his bill in House committee and floor debate, he was questioning some tourism-related capital projects that have been approved unanimously by the Brevard County Tourist Development Council and by a 4-1 vote by the Brevard County Commission, with Commissioner John Tobia opposed. The tourist tax would pay for some or all of those projects.
One project would provide $5 million for an $8 million project for upgrades to the Viera Regional Park’s sports complex, including seven lighted fields with synthetic turf.
But, when Fine mentioned that project in House floor debate, he didn’t discuss the turf and lighting work.
Instead, Fine said: “I’m not a very good athlete, but, last I checked, soccer fields are, like, grass and some chalk dust and some goal posts.”
Fine also disparaged a tourist tax allocation of $199,495 for upgrades to the Oars & Paddles Park and pier area in Indian Harbour Beach. The project includes an additional pier; repairs to the existing pier; installation of pilings, gangways and railings; and an additional 60 parking spaces to accommodate paddlers.
Fine noted the irony of this funding, when, to prevent sewage from backing up in homes, during and after Hurricane Irma, Brevard County discharged 20 million gallons of diluted sewage into a canal in Indian Harbour Beach that flows to the Banana River.
“I guess they thought tours of sewage would be a good thing for tourism,” Fine told fellow Florida House members during debate on his bill.
It’s comments like these — as well as ones made by Fine during House committee hearings on the bill — that didn’t sit well with members of the Brevard County Tourist Development Council.
As they were getting a status update on a recently approved allocation of $14.4 million for five tourism capital projects from Office of Tourism officials on Wednesday, the discussion shifted to Fine.
Hotelier Tom Williamson, who is vice chairman of the Tourist Development Council. said Fine “took these projects, and made us and everybody in the county, including the TDC and the County Commission, look like absolute fools for backing these projects.”
“We all feel, and I think justifiably so, that these are valid projects that will contribute to the economy of the county in a meaningful way,” said Williamson, who is general manager of both the 155-room Courtyard by Marriott Cocoa Beach/Cape Canaveral and the 150-room Hampton Inn by Hilton. Williamson also is a partner in the company that owns those Cocoa Beach hotels.
Palm Bay Mayor and Tourist Development Council member William Capote was even more direct in his criticism of Fine, saying Fine is looking out for his own political career and is trying to appease House leadership with his actions.
“Certain politicians that are hiding behind trying to be a lamb, and they’re really wolves, and he is one of those wolves,” Capote said. “He’s pillaging Brevard County by hurting us. These projects — everybody’s on board that is any sane mind, OK, and they know that this is a great thing for our community.”
None of the five proposed projects would be funded upfront. Rather, they would get money as a reimbursement, after project components are completed.
If Fine “took the time, rather than listen to himself, and actually listen to the people and to the elected officials, he would have a better understanding, and then his own platform would change,” Capote said.
Fine said he stands by his efforts to gain support for his bill, and dismisses the comments of the tourism officials.
“I don’t work for the tourism industry,” Fine said in an interview Friday. “I work for the people of Brevard County. People who run hotels should stick to running hotels,” rather than worrying about a bill that expands the flexibility of the tourist tax.
Fine noted that his bill “mandates nothing,” as far as spending tourism tax money on the expanded categories of infrastructure projects.
“We’re not telling local government what to do,” Fine said.
Rather, Fine noted the amendments he made to the original bill to address some concerns that were raised. Among them:
• Spending for the capital projects would need the support of a county’s tourist council, like the Brevard County Tourist Development Council, plus be approved by at least a two-thirds vote of a county’s governing body, like the Brevard County Commission.
• Such a project would have to have a “independent professional analysis” showing the positive impact of the infrastructure project on tourism-related businesses in the county.
• At least 30 percent of the project’s funding would have to come from a source other than the tourist tax.
Fine also disputes the contention by Tourist Development Council member and hotelier Bob Baugher, who maintains that Fine “has his own agenda,” including reducing local “home rule” powers of cities and counties, in part, to help clear the way for casino companies to make inroads into Florida.
“I’m sick of it,” said Baugher, who owns the 284-room Radisson Resort at the Port in Cape Canaveral, as well as the 75-room Four Points By Sheraton in Cocoa Beach and the 48-room Cocoa Beach Suites.
Fine’s business background includes working as chairman of The Fine Point Group, a technology company that helps casino companies improve their performance through data analysis.
Fine disputes what Baugher is saying, adding his bill actually increases the home rule powers of counties by giving county commissioners more flexibility in how tourist tax money is spent, plus requiring a two-thirds vote for approval of the new types of capital projects.
During House floor debate on the bill, in fact, some members said they were supporting it partly because of that.
This is a “very good home rule bill,” said Rep. Al Jacquet, D-Lantana.
But Rep. Kristen Jacobs, D-Coconut Creek, who voted against the bill, said there are “funding streams” other than tourist development taxes that should be used for water, wastewater and transportation projects.
She said tourist development taxes should be focused on putting tourist “heads in beds” at hotels.
A less controversial provision of Fine’s bill expands the allowable uses of the tourist tax to include projects related to channels, estuaries and lagoons, such as the Indian River Lagoon.
Fine said he believes he has a better than 50-50 chance of the Senate approving its version of his tourism tax bill. The Senate on Monday enters the final week of its regular session.
That bill, Senate Bill 658, has been approved unanimously by both the Senate Community Affairs Committee and Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Finance and Tax.
Fine said the bill could get to the Senate floor one of three ways: by getting approved by a third committee, the Senate Appropriations Committee; by being moved to a floor vote without getting approval of the third committee; or by becoming an amendment to a different bill.
Dave Berman is government editor at FLORIDA TODAY.
His Political Spin column appears Sundays in FLORIDA TODAY.
Contact Berman at 321-242-3649 or [email protected]
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