Tourist-tax revenues intended to fund Florida Keys bricks-and-mortar projects should be spent on bricks and mortar, Monroe County commissioners voted Wednesday.
Commissioners also voted to allow local cities to request up to 100 percent of a visitor-friendly construction project, up from the current limit of 50 percent; and boosted the amount that nonprofit groups with tourism-oriented projects can seek to 75 percent of cost, up from 50 percent.
The board of the commission-appointed Tourist Development Council voted 7-1 last week to oppose the allocation changes sought by all five Keys municipalities, along with two citizens’ groups.
“The entire TDC is a balancing act... We feel it’s worked incredibly well for a number of years,” Jodi Weinhofer, president of the Lodging Association of the Florida Keys and Key West, told commissioners at their Key Largo meeting Wednesday. “The problem with the changes going forward is that it removes all the checks and balances.”
“We know how important tourism is and no one wants to end that, but we need balance,” said Key West Mayor Craig Cates, endorsing the lower required match money for cities and nonprofits.
Money for bricks and mortar — shorthand for new projects like boardwalks, public restrooms or not-for-profit museums and wildlife centers — comes from the 2 percent share of tourist-tax money generated in and allocated to the five local TDC districts from Key West to Key Largo. Currently, the local district advisory committees (DACs) can spend 67 percent of their local budget on advertising, 3 percent on local events and 23 percent on capital (bricks-and-mortar) projects.
However, if not enough requests came in for bricks-and-mortar projects due to the need for matching money, those dedicated capital revenues could be moved by the DACs into the Keys tourism advertising budget.
About $7 million in TDC revenue was spent on bricks-and-mortar projects in the most recent fiscal year.
Over the past five years, an estimated $6 million was moved into advertising by the local DACs and TDC. The Lower Keys TDC District 2, which has fewer tourism facilities and more environmental restrictions, often had a surplus in its capital fund.
If cities and the county get 100 percent of a capital project’s cost, there may be little money left for not-for-profit groups, TDC supporters said. Commissioners said the DACs have the ability to reject a government request.
Marathon City Councilwoman Michelle Coldiron said money for capital projects “should stay there.”
“Residents complain playground equipment is falling apart and bathrooms are in disarray,” Coldiron said. “Why should our residents pay to restore these projects that can be [fully] reimbursed?... Advertising gets [tourists]; attractions keep them coming back.”
“We need to help make visitors’ experiences more enjoyable,” said Islamorada Councilwoman Deb Gillis, who owns three modest motels. “Bricks-and-mortar [funding] was designed for this and should be used for these projects. It should not roll over into advertising.”
Lloyd Eldridge, a board member of the Marathon Garden Club, said changing the nonprofit required match to 25 percent from 50 percent “would make all the difference in the world on whether we can proceed” with center improvements.
Rita Irwin, chairwoman of the TDC board, said using unspent bricks-and-mortar money on advertising creates a safety net to respond to an emergency that could harm tourism. “We spent $4 million after [Hurricane] Wilma,” Irwin said. “Other states are spending a lot of money on tourism; they want our visitors.”
On a 4-1 vote, county commissioners passed the lower matching rate for cities and nonprofits. Commissioner Heather Carruthers voted against it.
“Now the big, sexy projects are going to get all the money. Your at-large people [will be] outvoted,” Carruthers said. “Now there’s no incentive for municipalities to go out and find other monies.”
Commissioners unanimously agreed to keep bricks-and-mortar fund in its own fund, but agreed to a provision that the County Commission can approve a special request from a tourism district to shift money to advertising.
Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206