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Issue 575

02/16/2012 at 4:36pm
Mayor Larry KikerMayor Kiker Brings
the Beach to Tallahassee

Last Wednesday, Mayor Larry Kiker accompanied Fort Myers Mayor Randall Henderson, Town Attorney Jim Humphrey and Helen Gorman, Grant Writer for the Philharmonic Center for the Arts, on a trip to Tallahassee to meet with the Southwest Florida delegation of senators to speak on two primary issues specific to the needs of Fort Myers Beach: funding for the completion of the Mound House and fairer

representation on the Tourist Development Council (TDC). The group spent all day meeting with Senators Garrett Richter and Lizbeth Benacquisto and Representatives Matt Caldwell and Gary Aubuchon, and saw results from their efforts on both issues.

Tourist Development Council

The TDC was formed in 1982, when residents of Lee County voted by referendum to form a tourism organization that would promote Lee County's off-season vacation assets in the United States and abroad. A two-percent tax on short-term accommodations was approved to support the new Lee County Tourist Development Council (TDC) and its promotions. In 1988 an additional one percent tourist tax was levied to a total of three percent to support the Beach & Shoreline Capital Improvement Program, and in 2005 one more percent was added bringing what's commonly known as the 'bed tax' to five percent. There are nine seats on the Council, which serves as an advisory committee to the Lee County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC). TDC members oversee the entire tourist development tax fund, provide direction on programs and budget, and review the expenditures of the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau (VCB) quarterly. According to Florida Statute 125.0104, the council is comprised of three elected officials, three representatives from accommodations collecting the tourist tax, and three representatives from tourism-related industries. As far as the elected official seats, the statute reads as follows: "Two members of the council shall be elected municipal officials, at least one of whom shall be from the most populous municipality in the county or subcounty special taxing district in which the tax is levied.” This means that Cape Coral has a permanent seat while the other four cities in Lee (Ft. Myers, Bonita Springs, Sanibel and Fort Myers Beach) must rotate with each serving a four year term every twelve years.

Currently, Mayor Kevin Ruane of Sanibel holds the rotating seat, with Fort Myers coming up next in the queue in a year or two, according to Visitor and Convention Bureau Director Tamara Pigott.

"Fort Myers Beach has had one four-year term, not long after I came to the VCB in 2000,” she said. "Councilman Howard Rynearson was the representative for most of that term until he left office and someone else filled in for the last month or so. The way the TDC is now, the Beach's turn is up again after Fort Myers gets their four years.”

This despite the fact that Fort Myers Beach is second only to Sanibel in the amount of bed tax revenue it generates, and it is this disparity that Kiker wants to see changed.

"Lee County is the only county in the state where the largest population does not produce the highest revenue,” Mayor Kiker told us. "Was the intent of the law for the communities with the most population to get the best representation or those bringing in the most revenue? This model does not work for Lee County.”

Following a Town Hall meeting held in Santini Plaza last October that was attended by Senator Richter, the Town Council of Fort Myers Beach sent a letter to Richter requesting his assistance in changing this disparity, and this year he drafted an amendment that would address the council's concerns. The amendment, currently specific to Lee County, would add two seats to Lee's TDC - one of which would come from the municipality producing the highest revenue and the other from the tourism industry.

"The TDC has had a discussion on that amendment, and they think the language should be changed so that the seats remain at nine, but have the permanent seat belong to the city producing the highest amount of bed tax, and the rotation between the other cities should be every two years instead of four,” Pigott told us.

When we spoke to Michael Nachef, Legislative Assistant to Senator Richter in Tallahassee, he told us that the amendment had been withdrawn from the bill it was attached to and is now in a holding pattern due to concerns from Lee officials.

"Senate Bill 1274 is now going to the floor without the amendment, so now it's up to Lee County and their concerns,” Nachef told us. "Commission Chairman John Manning – who also serves as Chairman of the TDC - got involved and had some concerns, so now it's an open conversation which know that Fort Myers Beach and Bonita Springs are hoping to be a part of.”

Nachef confirmed what Mayor Kiker told us about Lee's uniqueness.

"We are an anomaly in Lee County,” he said. "If you lived in Miami-Dade County or virtually any other county in the state, the statute would make perfect sense. But here, despite having the largest population, Cape Coral in no way produces the most revenue.”

They don't show up to all the TDC meetings, either. According to Pigott, their representative attended 7 out of 11 meetings in 2011.

"It's just common sense,” says Mayor Kiker. "We have to look at it from a business standpoint – who sends in the most money?”

According to the Lee County Clerk of Courts, that would be Sanibel, but even that number is not a clear one – which is another thing that frustrates Kiker.

"That may not be true,” he said. "Another discussion that needs to be had is the lack of data coming from the TDC.”

The amendment will likely remain on hold until next year's legislative session so that all of Lee's concerns can be addressed, according to Nachef.

"It's all up to Lee County,” he said.

Mound House

As far as the Mound House, Kiker and Humphrey are proud to report that funding to the tune of $445,000 is now in the Senate's budget. Fort Myers Mayor Henderson was also successful in getting $500,000 for the Sydney Byrne Davis Center for the Performing Arts in the same budget.

The money would be used to restore the interior of the Mound House to it's 1921 beauty. The property is currently open to pedestrian tours of the shell mound exhibit and grounds, and Kiker says that – once the parking and pier issues are resolved - the restoration would be the final step in getting the house fully open, something that has been a very long time coming.

"It may also help to see some revenue coming towards the Town from that property to help offset some parks and recreation expenses,” he said.

The funding is part of the Cultural Facilities program. Former Cultural Resources Director Theresa Schober submitted the Mound House for inclusion two years ago, and it was recommended for funding by the Florida Council on Arts and Culture but didn't make it on the 2012 budget so it remained on the list as a 'rollover item' for this year's Legislature.

Being placed on the Senate budget doesn't guarantee that it will make the final cut, however, explained Senator Garrett Richter's Legislative Assistant Michael Nachef.

"The Senate is currently in the process of passing it's version of the budget, then it has to go to the floor and then the House and Senate have to make their versions match,” he said. "Right now the Mound House is not in the House's budget, so we have to work with them to keep it on the final budget, which then has to go to the Governor who can veto anything he wants.”

That's one of the reasons Humphrey and Kiker met with both local House Representatives, and got positive responses from each.

"We are supportive of this project. We met with Mayor Kiker last week, and will advocate for funding, said Paige Anne Biagi, Chief Legislative Assistant to Representative Aubuchon.

It is responses like that one that have Kiker and Humphrey feeling optimistic. That and the fact that this is the furthest along in the process that the beleagured site has ever been.

"This is the closest the Mound House has ever gotten to being included on the funding list,” said Nachef. "And that's thanks to Mayor Kiker and Senator Richter working so hard to get it on the budget.”

Keri Hendry