SPECIAL TO HISTORIC CITY NEWS
Recently I read two editorials concerning the Bed Tax (Tourist Development Tax) and the need to expand the tax uses and allocate a greater share to St. Augustine. I was almost giddy over the thought that monies are already being generated and we simply needed to disburse them differently and this lie in the hands of the County Commission.
Less than one hour into my research the brutal reality, at least in Florida sunk in as did the realization, “State law does not allow tourist tax dollars to do anything but promote more tourism. The tourism industry wants it to stay that way.”
More than once during the almost 40 year history of the tax have counties beseeched the Legislature to expand the uses of the Bed tax, to no avail. In fact in 2001, then state Rep Andy Gardiner introduced a bill to expand the tax uses, which was supported by 70 percent of central Floridians. The momentum for reform died and never came to a vote, when it was confronted by the tourism industry.
Disney and Universal have approximately 30 lobbyists and the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association has no less than 15 all touting that Tourism needs every cent. Other attempts have been made over the years-by Key West (2008) and Miami-Dade (2009).
Currently, the rate in St. Johns County is only 4 percent, which is far below the national average. Many cities, like Washington D.C., Las Vegas and New York City charge closer to 15 percent. Each July, the Tourist Development Council (TDC) submits its plan to the County Commission for the next year. Although the percentage breakdown can be varied, the fact remains that in Florida the money can only be used to advertise tourism and build and improve sports facilities and convention centers and fund various events.
Saint Augustine is the top generator of revenue from the Bed Tax assessment for St. Johns County. TDC pulled in over 9 million in 2016, most coming from St. Augustine. The historic city is in need of new and improved roads, parking structures, and approximately 300 millions dollars worth of improvements to infrastructure (water and waste water). Other States have realized the need to expand the tax uses and shift funds to sustainability and maintenance, such as Chicago and Seattle who spent it on infrastructure and other public works.
History shows us that it is highly unlikely that the Bed Tax as it is written, will be expanded to allow such uses as infrastructure. There are ways our city can address our unique needs and share the burden of maintaining the oldest city in the United States and the St. Johns County cash cow with the County and State, by requesting the ability to implement a municipality tax, much like the Bed Tax, so tourists would be taxed and the city would be the recipient. Although this may be a more palatable way for some, I am sure it too would bring diverse opinions.
Susan Rathbone is president of SANDS, is a Davis Shores resident and candidate for election to the St Augustine City Commission, Seat 2, non-partisan. She has approved and paid for publication of this article.