Sheriff seeks help with parking enforcement
County staff has been tasked with looking into ways to bring on what used to be called “meter maids,” staffers who can handle the growing parking problems in the county.
County commissioners on Tuesday morning made the move in response to an appeal by Sheriff A.J. Smith to help him address parking issues that his officers have been dealing with, as the summer season opened with a flood of visitors into the county.
“Alligator Point got pretty extreme and recently there’s more (parking problems) on St. George Island, Smith told commissioners.
“Deputy sheriffs are out there as parking attendants. It’s a real waste of their time, especially in the summertime,” he said. “We have a huge traffic issue on weekends.”
He said a crash by day-trippers in Alligator Point knocked down a utility pole, all part of a growing number of visitors who often skirt the rules where they should park. One enterprising resident of that neighborhood even made a pretty penny renting out spaces on his property.
On St. George Island, it’s been a matter of people parking at stop signs and curbs, Smith said. “It’s not the local people doing it, they’re not the problem,” he said.
“The worst time for parking is weekends in the summer. Other times we really don’t have an issue,” he said. “Alligator Point is the biggest trouble spot, and maybe St. George Island on Saturdays and Sundays.”
The sheriff suggested hiring a part-time person at $10 to $15 an hour, no benefits, who would be empowered to write tickets and help with cars that needed to be towed.
He said that hiring would free up deputies to deal with beach infractions that have included such things as indecent exposure, urinating and littering.
“If they’re writing parking tickets, they are not on the beach enforcing the quality of life issues,” Smith said. “Writing one ticket may take 45 minutes. It takes time.
“It’s a waste of resources,” he said. “They could be utilized catching drunk drivers, speeders, even the golf carts on the island.
“I’m just looking for suggestions and ideas,” he said, adding that the part-time employee would not necessarily have to be a law enforcement person, such as those recreation department employees who enforce the Leave No Trace ordinance.
“The biggest thing is where the money would come from,” Smith said.
Chairman Noah Lockley said he thought the Tourist Development Council might be tapped as a source of funding. “They’re supposed to contribute a little more,” he said. “We got to look at all this stuff; it’s not going to stop. They’re bringing them in; they’re part of it.
“I’m saying they are the ones who advertise (for tourists),” Lockley said. “If you’re going to do it, do it all the way. We only have so much space and we’re getting overrun. On any given day there might be 30,000 people in the county. Something’s got to be done.”
The discussion then focused on whether the TDC would be legally allowed to perform this law enforcement function, and whether a staffer outside the sheriff’s office could do it.
Commissioner Ricky Jones suggested the county get a legal opinion from the Florida attorney general, prompting County Attorney Michael Shuler to point out that such an opinion would first require an opinion from the county attorney.
“My opinion is you can’t do that,” he said.
He said law enforcement is a general obligation of the county, paid for by ad valorem taxes. “That’s where the funding source comes from,” Shuler said.
“TDC funds cannot be used to replace general revenues,” he said, adding that he currently is drawing up a proposal that could lead to a one-cent hike in the TDC bed tax that is charged to all transient rentals, and is currently at 2 percent.
“Why should we put out taxes that are going to the TDC?” asked Lockley.
Former County Planner Alan Pierce said TDC funds have been used to erect structures that benefit tourism.
Commissioner Smokey Parrish said the problem is not a new one, and that the county needs to focus on a solution for the long-term.
“If you don’t accommodate people when they get here, they come back home and say “We loved it, but there’s no place to park,” he said. “This is something that we have been going through, and here we are again today.”
Parrish cautioned against moving forward on Smith’s request without a complete look at the budget implications.
“There’s more to it. They need a vehicle, they need a radio, we don’t have the information here,” he said. “I’m being told we’re already going to have a budget shortfall here. People may be losing jobs. All this has to be considered. You can’t have more services without paying more taxes.”
Prior to making the motion for staff to examine the matter, with Bert Boldt seconding, Parrish suggested that funding might come from private sources.
“Maybe from a civic organization or from alternative funding sources as it relates to the budget shortfall,” he said. “We have to look at it from a total perspective.”