The City of Sanibel is hoping to secure a permanent chair among the nine seats comprising Lee County's Tourism Development Council through a proposal that alters the board's current structure by recognizing the municipality that serves as the largest contributor to the county's bed tax system.
The TDC is currently led by a chairman, six members from the hotel/condo industry and two other seats in which one rotates among municipalities every four years, while the other is designated for the community with the largest population, in this case, Cape Coral. During the TDC Meeting of February 5, 2012, Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau Executive Director Amanda Pigott says members reached "general consensus" to recommend a redesign that would designate a chair for Sanibel as opposed to Cape Coral.
Pigott says while in other areas of the state, where the largest bases of population may actually contribute the most in lodging taxes, there is "an anomaly" in Southwest Florida. The small Island community of Sanibel is the largest contributor here, providing almost 16% of the more than $24 million Lee County annually rakes-in from lodging-related taxes levied on hotels, campgrounds, condos and the like operating in municipalities like Fort Myers Beach and Bonita Springs as well as other unincorporated areas.
Pigott says deliberations amounting to change with the current system was prompted after she received "a surprise" call from Florida Senator Garret Richter. She says one of Senator Richter's staff informed her that the Senator was discussing the idea of increasing the size of the TDC council, to allow for two more seats. That idea, Pigott concedes, caught her as well as other TDC members, a little off-guard.
According to Senator Richter, the whole notion began prior to this legislative session. He says while appearing at a town hall meeting on Fort Myers Beach, he was approached by Town Manager Terry Stewart and Mayor Larry Kiker and questioned as to what had been the intent when legislation was initially enacted as to design of the council. Though this had occurred long before Senator Richter's appointment, he says "it is reasonable" to presume that state leaders had previously imagined there was a correlation between population and revenue generators. He says Kiker and Stewart essentially explained how Fort Myers Beach bed tax contributions were greater than that of Cape Coral. Their request, according to Richter, was to consider expanding TDC size to allow for that community's guaranteed seat. "This was the starting point for a conversation," says Richter, adding that discussions are so early in the process, he doesn't see any determinations being made until some time after the legislative session.
However, locally, Pigott says there was feeling the State was moving much faster, and the idea of expanding TCD size to allow for more municipal input (as opposed to that from the tax generators) prompted County Commissioner John Manning and County Attorney Karen Haas to meet with Senator Richter last week and request time for a local solution and recommendation made by the council.
Pigott says this is the first year where the County Clerk broke down tax collections in such a way as to rank municipalities by how much they provided. Again, Sanibel was deemed as the largest contributor; Fort Myers Beach is second.
The proposal to change TDC structure was included on the meeting agenda last week. After discussions, Pigott says consensus was reached to make the rotating chair more frequent (rotations of every two years vs four) and award the other guaranteed chair to the largest tax contributor. If additional seats are made, Pigott says TDC requested that these be awarded to lodging operators. Ironically, with Cape Coral standing to lose a chair if this proposal is approved, their TDC representative, Councilman Leonard Nesta, failed to attend the meeting. Pigott says neither she nor her staff were notified that Nesta would not be attending, though she had provided him with agenda for that time. Calls to Leonard Nesta at the City of Cape Coral had not been returned by press time.
Meanwhile, Pigott says she is seeking additional input from the Lee County Hotel Association and recommendations will be provided for Senator Richter's review in the coming weeks.
Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane, who attends TDC meetings on behalf of Sanibel, says he is encouraged by the discussions that have occurred and feel the changes make sense as this community "is a large stake holder" in tax dollars generated for the county. "Sanibel has the burden of maintaining 18 miles of beaches for Lee County," says Mayor Ruane, adding those costs amount to more than $2 million annually.
Mayor Ruane says he also understands the nature of concern some hoteliers may have, in terms of increasing political input as opposed to that from industry sources. He says he can relate to fears that some hold as to whether politicians always do what is best in their advocating use of public dollars.
Mayor Ruane, however, says he doesn't see himself as a politician in the traditional sense. He, like the rest of Sanibel's City Council, doesn't earn one cent for his elected position. "We've been very prudent in our community when it comes to public funds, and have done the right things in terms of protecting our assets, contributing to the county and have made the appropriate decisions," says Mayor Ruane. "We help market a product, our beaches, which serves our community and the entire county... it makes sense for Sanibel to have greater input on the TDC."