At their regular meeting April 3, members of the Tourist Development Council discussed the possibility of doubling the county “bed tax” tax on short-term rentals from the current 2 percent.
TDC Director Curt Blair opened the meeting by cautioning that, “Without an influx of funds, we are set for what we can do for the rest of the fiscal year.”
TDC Chairman Pinki Jackel was strongly in support of an increase in the bed tax. She distributed information on the growth of tourism in the county and the bed tax charged in surrounding counties to TDC members.
“The grid shows what the tourism discretionary tax money for tourism is doing. Tourism activity has grown by over 60 percent based on transient rentals since the inception of the sales tax,” she said. “(The tax money) has allowed TDC to provide over $2 million to nonprofit organizations. Our not-for-profits are very busy providing things to do for visitors and promoting the environment and all the great things we have in Franklin County.
“If we have done all this with the 2 percent we collect, what can we do with more? If we increase it by 2 percent, that will be an additional $800,000 per year. That’s about $65,000 monthly,” she said.
Jackel received universal support from the TDC board members.
Alice Collins of Collins Vacation Rentals said, “Oh gosh, if it’s 4 percent, it’s half of what I pay somewhere else. I don’t think you’ll find too many lodging vendors who aren’t in favor of this.”
Rex Pennycuff said, “No one wants to raise taxes but I’m in favor of this tax. This is a user tax. I would venture to say that 98 percent of the people in this room will never pay a penny of this tax.”
In a telephone interview, Kathy Robinson, who has interests in real estate, vacation rentals and charter fishing, said she had mixed feelings about the increase.
“I’m not against it,” she said. “We can probably do some good things with that money. But, people do come here because it’s more affordable than surrounding areas. This will increase the cost of lodgings. People do pay attention to taxes. When I book a rental I am careful to quote the cost and point out the amount of tax that will be charged.”
At least one local lodging provider spoke out strongly against even the existing bed tax in an interview following the TDC meeting.
Jimmy Mosconis, owner of the Bay City Lodge, called it “taxation without representation. It hasn’t helped me one iota and I want out of it,” he said.
He pointed out that in Bay County, only vendors to the west of the Hathaway Bridge in the tourism oriented beach area must pay the bed tax.
TDC member Chester Reese of Carrabelle said, “If you look at us we are the lowest in such a great rental area. Everyone’s going to benefit from this. I support this tax.”
A 4 percent bed tax is smaller than large metro areas like Miami-Dade (9 percent), and New York City (9 percent).
Orlando in Orange County collects 5 percent as does Sarasota, Miami Beach and Leon County. Key West collects 4 percent with a 2 percent add on for conventions.
All other coastal Panhandle counties collect 4 to 5 percent.
Jackel said the money could be used to increase funding to the visitor centers, renovate the Armory and improve water access. Collins suggested some of the money could go towards international marketing.
Jackel urged the board members to take the proposal directly to the county commission. “If you take it to referendum, you’ll never see a dollar this year,” she said.
She said that if the TDC asked for two 1 percent increases in the tax, only a majority vote of at least 3-2 would be needed. But, if the TDC requested a 2 percent hike, four of the five county commissioners must support the increase. She speculated that, if the increase passed in May, the TDC could begin collecting the increased tax in June.
Diana Prickett, owner of Resort Vacation Properties, said the transition would take longer because existing rentals would have to be informed of the increase. Collins said the transition would take “at least three months.”
Reese said he wanted to be sure the majority of lodging providers backed the increase before approaching the county commission. “I’d just like to see as many rental providers on board as we can,” he said.
Blair said he believed more time was needed to communicate the idea to vendors.
“I think it might be smart for the TDC to send a letter to each lodging provider notifying them this is our plan and this is why we are doing this,” Collins said.
Blair suggested lodging vendors be invited to the next TDC meeting to discuss the increase. The board voted unanimously to contact all lodging vendors with the plan and invite them to join the discussion.