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Vero wonders why it gets no cut of bed tax to shore up beaches

STORY BY EILEEN KELLEY, (Week of February 7, 2013)

Vero Beach officials have approached Indian River County for two years asking for a share of what by all accounts they believe should be theirs: money to shore up the city’s beaches. For two straight years, they’ve been told maybe next year.

 “It’s absurd,” said Vero Councilwoman Tracy Carroll.

At issue is the bed tax tourists pay when checking out of hotels or renting properties for six months or less in Indian River County. 

That tax is four cents on the dollar.  This year an estimated $1.62 million is expected to be collected, more than half of which will be generated by properties within the city such as the upscale hotels on the beaches.

Of those four cents, the first three cents is supposed to be divided equally between tourism promotion  and beach replenishment.  The other cent goes to payments on the bonds issued to buy the former Dodgertown, now Vero Beach Sports Village.

In 1993 when the county and city signed a joint resolution on the tourist tax, both sides acknowledged that the city was feeding more money into the account than the county, and that beaches would be of the utmost concern in allocation of those dollars.

Vero Beach is prohibited from directly spending tax dollars on routine beach replenishment efforts since voters changed the city charter by referendum two decades ago. The work the city has done recently with its own money has been categorized as emergency repairs.

Carroll and City Manager Jim O’Connor  say that if the pot is divided equally between the county and the city, then the city should see at least $300,000 annually specifically earmarked for beach projects.

O’Connor said county officials told him there was no money when he asked them to reimburse the city for the $152,000 it needed to shore up the dunes at the Conn Beach boardwalk and Humiston Park after Hurricane Sandy washed away much of the dunes.

“The fact is, they are saying you cannot have any of it,” said Carroll.

The year before, county officials again rejected a city request for $70,000 after a no-name winter storm tore away chunks of the dunes at Conn Beach.

Again, the county said no, according to Carroll and O’Connor, even though there was a line item in the budget that it had $250,000 banked. 

Carroll and O’Connor said they were told the line item in the budget was a mistake when they asked about it.

Both sides are standing their ground, but in this battle, the county is winning as it controls the money. The county’s next large-scale beach replenishment project was scheduled to address erosion on the city’s beaches – called Sector 5 in the county’s plan – but with state funding nonexistent and little local political will to spend millions on beach sand, that project seems stalled indefinitely.

“I don’t know the last time county trucks rolled on our beaches,” said Carroll.

County Administrator Joe Baird addressed the issue recently on a talk-radio program, Morning Magazine with Bob Soos.

Soos started the conversation by saying it appeared the city was miffed about being turned away when it asked for money to shore up the city’s dunes.

What Baird said next confirmed what Carroll and O’Connor have been saying for months now.

“We did our beach restoration and we didn’t use tourist tax money. The purpose of tourist tax money is to put heads on beds and promote tourism,” Baird told Soos.  “We have got a lot of needs as far as marketing tourism and that’s how we spend the money.”

What about the agreement and the fact that most tourists come here to visit the city’s public beaches, counter Carroll and O’Connor.

Baird said the bulk of money for dunes and beach restoration comes from the county’s general fund and it wouldn’t be right to dig into the county’s general fund to pay for a city project.

City residents, however, will pay $6.4 million in taxes into the county’s general fund based on the tax rate and appraised values set last year.

The whole line drawn in the sand, if you will, has rattled Carroll for months.

“It is unfortunate that the county has taken this position that once the funds have been obtained from the tourism tax dollars, it becomes the county’s piggy bank regardless of where the funds come from,” she said.