Shoaf bill could allocate bed taxes for public safety

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State Rep. Jason Shoaf has filed a bill with the Florida House that would allow limited bed tax revenue to be used for public safety, including law enforcement. 

House Bill 673, which has yet to be entitled, calls for as much as 20 percent of coastal counties’ tourism taxes be available for public safety entities, at each county’s discretion.

If things go according to his plan, Shoaf said the change could come as early as July of next year.

“I am seeing the increase in tourism in our coastal counties,” Shoaf said, stating why he filed the legislation. “And while we have seen our millage, our property taxes go up when property values, we haven't seen a proportionate increase in funding for our law enforcement”

If passed, county governments will be responsible for determining how much of the available 20 percent they will designate for public safety.

The wording of the bill also makes clear that counties will not be able to have bed tax revenues replace existing funding sources for these departments.

“If taxes collected pursuant to this section are used to reimburse emergency medical services or public safety services for tourism or special events, the governing board of a county or municipality may not use such taxes to supplant the normal operating expenses of an emergency medical services department, a fire department, a sheriff’s office or a police department,” the bill reads.

As Florida law now stands, bed tax dollars may only be spent on promoting increased tourism, including marketing and advertising efforts, and not public safety. But in recent years, there have been a few exceptions.

Similar legislation has been sweeping coastal Panhandle counties. Most recently, in 2018, Bay County designated dollars from the Tourist Development Council tax for use by the local sheriff’s office and law enforcement agencies. 

The bill comes after Gulf County commissioners voted to replicate Bay County’s model during their Sept. 28 meeting. At the meeting, Sheriff Mike Harrison spoke to commissioners about the strain his department has faced with increased tourism.

“When you look at our population, and you look at our officer-per-person, it seems to be in line,” Harrison told the Star in October. “But when you compound that with busy holiday weekend tourists – it just stretches our resources very thin.” 

 The sheriff explained that often traffic alone in peak tourist season creates a large burden on his office, which usually has three or four officers working at a time.

“We don’t have the time to do the proactive patrol that I wish we could do,” he said. “So many times, it’s just reactive with our deputies hustling calls, one right after the other.” 

In addition to public safety funding, House Bill 673 would enable up to 20 percent of bed tax dollars to be set aside for training programs that would promote or support tourism in coastal counties.

Shoaf said these programs could include culinary courses, hospitality training, marketing classes or training in other similar fields, which he says many counties cannot currently allocate ad valorem taxes for.

“There are no new taxes,” the state representative said. “This is only dealing with existing tax dollars that are already being collected.”

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