Wednesday, March 24, 2021

City Speaks Its Truth to County Commission on Beach Access, Bed Tax Spending

Speaking their truth to power, St. Augustine, Florida City Commissioners reportedly believe:

  • St. Augustine is not getting its fair share of Bed Tax money.
  • Bed tax spending on beach renourishment is "futile," and without adequate public access, Mayor Tracy Upchurch said.

St. Augustine is the tourist draw and brand, Commissioners believe.  

But St. Augustine is not receiving the benefit of County Bed Tax spending, on which St. Augustine has litle say.

So provincial, selfish and arrogant is St. Johns County under current Cabal rules that:

  • The City of St Augustine was never consulted about the County's goals, adopted unanimously March 16, 2021, without adequate public notice (not so much as a press release from the County's holdover PR man, Michael Ryan);
  • St. Johns County Commissioners probably violated EEO laws when they hired HUNTER SINCLAIR CONRAD, County Clerk of Courts and Comptroller, as County Administrator, hired without benefit of national search or posting, or advertising or background check (which would have revealed the fact that HUNTER SINCLAIR CONRAD was "Clerk 1" in a Chicago federal court bribery conspiracy indictment alleging $8000 in his campaign contributions were intended as bribes.

In addition to surfers, other cirtizens and City Commissioners, the Army Corps of Engineers has raised concerns about beach access.  If USACE funds are to be used to restore and restore and restore our beaches north of Vilano Beach, St. Johns County must show it is making progress to improve beach access.

The answer is a St. Augustine National Hitoridcal Park an d National Seashore, which would preserve and protect our history and nature, including public access to beaches.  

First proposed in 1939 by Mayor Walter Fraser, a current draft bill would preserve and protect the City and some 140,000 acres of current government-owned land.

St. Augustine Mayor Tracy Wilson Upchurch and City  Commissioner John Otha Valdes spoke truth to County officials this week, but did so at a meeting that was not televised.  

Commissioners, get that TV working again and we can make some progress. 

Here's the Incredible Shrinking St. Augustine Record's coverage: 

St. Augustine commissioners: We want a bigger cut of the bed tax
City is still the main attraction in county, commissioner says
By Sheldon Gardner
St. Augustine Record
March 24, 2021

St. Augustine commissioners are vying for a bigger chunk of the bed tax revenue as the St. Johns County Commission considers an increase. 

"People don't come to St. Johns County. They come to the oldest city in the country," St. Augustine Commissioner John Valdes said. 

This month, county commissioners supported exploring the possibility of raising the bed tax from 4% to 5% in the county. The tax is charged on temporary lodging such as hotels, motels and vacation rentals. 

The City Commission supported seeking half of the increase. 

The County Commission hasn't discussed how the additional revenue could be used, but city governments are weighing in. 

County Commissioner Christian Whitehurst brought up the proposal to consider an increase on March 2, saying it's an opportunity to get more money from tourists for the impacts they bring. 

County Commissioner Jeb Smith raised concerns about increasing taxes and questioned the purpose.

"I just know that with limited financial resources in this county, I think that's something that we could certainly avail ourselves of," Whitehurst said. "So I'm not sure what the intended use would necessarily be."

The county Tourist Development Council is reviewing the issue before it goes back to the County Commission with recommendations ― a date hasn't been set for the County Commission review. 

The City Commission plans to send its recommendation to the county along with information on how the city might use the revenue from half of the increase, such as getting loans to improve infrastructure for tourism. 

Adding 1% to the existing tax would require support from four of the five county commissioners. 

The county government, which is led by the County Commission, controls how the bed tax is allocated and spent. 

The funds are used to draw tourism into the county; fund some arts programs and marketing; beach renourishment; and pay for tourist-related infrastructure improvements, among other things. Its uses are limited by state law. 

The county expects to get about $12 million a year from the bed tax as it stands, said Tera Meeks, the county's tourism and cultural development director.

The revenue fluctuates as tourism conditions change. 

The city receives some of that money already. 

In fiscal year 2019, before the pandemic hit government coffers, the city of St. Augustine received $180,000 in bed tax revenue for things such as its July 4th fireworks display, Nights of Lights, a park-and-ride shuttle and its Visitor Information Center, according to city spokeswoman Melissa Wissel. 

Valdes said the city is losing clout with the county government because it represents a small portion of the county's population ― about 15,415 residents out of the county's 264,672 residents in 2019, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

But the city remains the main draw for tourism, and the city has long been feeling the impacts of tourism in road conditions, congestion and more, he said. 

"If you take St. Augustine out of St. Johns County, you've just got another … county with golf courses and beaches. So we're not getting our fair shake now," Valdes said. 

Study shows: Recovery a year away for tourism businesses; St. Augustine officials are optimistic

Commissioners said they'd heard people speculating that the county would want to use the entire 1% increase for beach renourishment in the north part of the county, which they said they wouldn't support. 

Valdes said he knows renourishing beaches is important, though he sees it "as futile."

Mayor Tracy Upchurch said he'd heard the same rumors and found it "problematic" to spend bed tax dollars to renourish beaches "where there is precious little access by the general public."

"That seems to me a … very poor usage of tourist development funds," Upchurch said. 

County Commission Chair Jeremiah Blocker said the county hasn't gotten yet to the discussion on how the money would be used, and it's not clear how much money might go toward shoring up beaches in the north part of the county. But he said he supports using some of the money for that purpose. 

Ponte Vedra Beach has one of the biggest beach access points in the county, Mickler's Landing, Blocker said. Also, the area brings in a large chunk of bed tax revenue with its hotels and The Player's Championship, yet it hasn't seen the investment on its beaches from the county, unlike other areas. 

"I think part of it going to beach renourishment would be preferable. … We're not even at that point," he said.

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