Bill filed expands use of tourist tax for lagoon; statements attacks Brevard County Commission

Brevard commissioner fire back: 'He doesn't know what he is talking about'


BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – Florida Rep. Randy Fine on Thursday filed a bill designed to expand the possible uses of the Tourist Development Tax in the state, including for environmental projects related to the Indian River Lagoon.

At the same time, he attacked members of the Brevard County Commission and the local tourism sector for what he perceived as their lack of support for his initiative, reports News 6 partner Florida Today.

Fine, R-Palm Bay, said his proposal, contained in House Bill 585, would "amend the Tourist Development Tax statute to allow bed taxes to be spent on a wide array of capital projects necessary to facilitate tourism, including transportation, wastewater, solid waste, groundwater drainage, drinking water and pedestrian facilities. The bill also makes clear that estuaries and lagoons are considered rivers and inland lakes for the purposes of existing authority."

Fine's bill is similar to Senate Bill 658, which was filed on Oct. 26 by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg.

Brevard County has a 5 percent Tourist Development Tax on hotel rooms and other short-term rentals. The tax is expected to raise $14.35 million in the budget year that began Oct. 1.

Brevard County Tourist Development Council Chairman Jim Ridenour called Fine's proposal "criminal."

Ridenour said he does not agree with Fine that the tourist tax should be allowed to be used for such things as wastewater infrastructure.

"There is a big disconnect," said Ridenour, who is the general manager of the 146-room Courtyard by Marriott in West Melbourne and the 133-room Residence Inn by Marriott in Melbourne. "It's called a 'tourism tax' for a reason. We need to use it to promote tourism. I think this bill is mixing apples and oranges."

Fine has been at odds with the majority of the Brevard County Commission, which last month approved using $14.4 million in Tourist Development Tax money for five tourism-focused capital projects. The vote was 4-1, with County Commissioner John Tobia opposed.

Fine juxtaposed that decision with a situation following Hurricane Irma, in which the county discharged more than 19 million gallons of wastewater, much of it into a canal that leads to the Banana River.

He said it was "a scandal" that the County Commission approved the $14.4 million in tourism capital projects around the time of the wastewaste discharge.

Fine also is upset that the County Commission this week did not support a resolution put forth by Tobia, asking the six-member Brevard delegation of the Florida Legislature to push for legislation that would allow lagoon projects to be funded by the Tourist Development Tax.

“So much of our infrastructure is failing and inadequately maintained, and many local politicians hide behind real — or made up — restrictions of the Tourist Development Tax to fund special-interest projects at the expense of Florida’s visitors and tourists,” Fine said in a statement released Thursday. “With billions of dollars being collected from tourists to Florida, we should grant local governments the ‘home rule’ power to spend those dollars in the best manner to attract and facilitate tourists.”

Reacting to Fine's proposal, County Commission Chairman Curt Smith said Fine "is shortsighted and long-winded. He doesn't know what he is talking about."

Smith said he believes, by trying to direct money away from tourism-related capital projects that were vetted by the Brevard County Tourist Development Council, Fine would be discouraging tourists from coming to the Space Coast.

"It's obvious that Rep. Fine has a problem with tourists coming to our county," Smith said. "We like tourists."

Smith said Fine should "stay in his own lane," and deal with statewide issues in Tallahassee, rather than trying to interfere with the local tourism industry.

In defending his bill, Fine said: “Without a healthy Indian River Lagoon, we won’t have any tourism in Brevard County, and without a vibrant infrastructure, we won’t be able to handle our large and growing tourism industry. I spent 15 years working on tourism-related issues, and I understand the importance of tourism marketing. But if we do not maintain our public tourism assets — in order to build white elephants that have little to nothing to do with tourism — we jeopardize this critical industry.”

Fine said his marketing experience during his years in the gaming industry makes him keenly aware of tourism marketing concerns.

"It's not like I don't understand how tourism advertising works," Fine said. "If we don’t have something for tourists to visit, then all the tourism advertising in the world won't matter."

He said his bill gives local governments further discretion on spending Tourist Development Tax dollars.

"We're not forcing them to do it," Fine said. "They could choose not to do it. It just allows them to."

Ridenour said there are other potential sources of the environmental funding in the Brevard County budget, including money designated for utility infrastructure upgrades and money generated by a half-percent sales tax for Indian River Lagoon-related projects.

Ridenour said Brevard County should not raid its Tourist Development Tax revenue for those purposes.

Referring to Fine's bill, Ridenour said: "You're going to tax both our local taxpayers and tax our tourists to fix our sewers?"

Ridenour said he expects the tourism industry to work to prevent Fine's bill from becoming law.

He also is hoping for help from Gov. Rick Scott, who Ridenour said is a strong supporter of the tourism industry, recognizing its importance to the state's economy, including as a sector that creates many jobs for Florida residents.

Fine's bill does not address the issue of providing state money to test for bacteria in the lagoon.

Fine said he hasn't heard of any request for such funding.

"Nothing stops them from spending their own money on it," Fine said, referring to local governments.

Tourist tax allocations

Brevard County's Tourist Development Tax is expected to raise $14.35 million in the budget year that began Oct. 1. Here is how the tax will be divided:

47 percent for promotion and advertising of Space Coast tourism 

25 percent.for beach improvement 

14 percent for capital facilities 

5 percent for the Brevard Zoo

4 percent for cultural events 

3 percent for Space Coast Stadium

2 percent for visitor information centers