AMI officials seek change in tourist tax spending

AMI officials seek change in tourist tax spending
Bradenton Beach Mayor John Chappie addresses the Manatee County Tourist Development Council. Chappie would like to see a change in how tourist tax dollars are spent. - Jason Schaffer | Sun

ANNA MARIA – Manatee County tourist taxes are required to be used primarily to promote tourism and tourism-related projects, but some local officials, including Bradenton Beach Mayor John Chappie, want to change how the money is spent.

When anyone rents accommodations for six months or less in the county, they must pay a 5% tourist tax, earmarked for a state-mandated list of uses, including tourism marketing efforts, tourist attractions and beach renourishment. Anna Maria Island is the largest contributor of tourist tax funds in the county.

Chappie addressed members of the Manatee County Tourist Development Council (TDC) during public comments at an Aug. 15 meeting, suggesting that the law regarding how the tourist tax is spent be changed to include funding for infrastructure due to the recent tourism boom since COVID-19 restrictions were lifted.

“I just wanted to remind you that hopefully during this next state legislative session coming up, to really talk with legislators to try to change where the funds can be spent for our tourist tax dollars,” he said. “Back in the 70s when I got here, the lots on the Island were platted and there were three to six people on these lots. What’s happened over the last decade, through no action of our own for the most part, is we’re cramming in 12 to 22 people on the same 75×100 lots.”

Chappie says because of this large increase, the infrastructure of the Island is suffering. He noted that public safety, law enforcement, sewer lines, lifeguards and services that are being stressed by the large increase in visitors are in desperate need of additional funding. He believes the tourism tax should be the source of those much-needed funds.

Of the $2,838,590 collected in tourist taxes in June 2022 (the latest figures available) in Manatee County, $1,405,389 came from the three Anna Maria Island cities, accounting for almost half of the total for the county. At $890,927.24, Holmes Beach collected more tourist tax dollars than both Bradenton Beach and Anna Maria combined.

“We need to get on this and try to be able to use the TDC dollars for other things other than drawing more tourists in here,” Chappie said. “We love our tourists, I’m not jamming on the tourists at all, they’re a major part of our economy, but we can’t go on the way it is right now. We need other sources of funding for these important needs our communities have.”

Commissioner Carol Carter of Anna Maria also addressed the TDC, agreeing with the mayor’s plea. Carter said Anna Maria has more than 800 vacation rentals in a city that covers only one square mile. She said while permanent residents average 1.8 people per house, vacation rentals tend to average nine people per house.

“Just for your information, the state legislature did make some exceptions some years ago for TDC for the three counties in the panhandle, kind of focused on Panama City and all the tourist involvement that they have there for public safety reasons,” Carter said. “So, there is a precedent, and I just reinforced what Mayor Chappie said about the next legislative session.”

Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore also weighed in on the discussion, saying that despite Holmes Beach being the Island’s primary source of tourist tax dollars, it still has not had the funds to replace its pier.

Later in the TDC meeting, Research Data Services’Ann Wittine presented her state of tourism update featuring the latest available statistics related to the tourism industry in Manatee County from June of 2022.

“We got very used to those arrows pointing up,” she said. “What we saw in June was a slight rollback in numbers in June of 2022, but what I really want to emphasize is that, compared to our benchmark in 2019, pre-COVID, our visitors are up 25.8%, room nights are up 25% and economic impact is up 38.4%.”

Wittine said the reason for the recent dip in numbers is because, in 2021, the area was seeing a huge surge in visitation driven by the fact that people were getting vaccinated in record numbers in the first quarter of 2021 and therefore more apt to travel. Room occupancy is also slightly down in 2022 at 79.3% compared to 88.1% in June of last year. It is still higher than in June 2019 when it stood at 74.7% pre-COVID. The average daily room rate is up though, at $209.19 per day in June 2022 compared to $195.19 in June 2021.

While the Island is used to seeing a large number of tourists from Florida, those numbers have actually dipped 19.8% from June 2021, but are up 126% from 2019, showing the effect COVID travel restrictions had on people who didn’t leave Florida during the height of the pandemic. For the fiscal year to date, visitation is up 14.1% from June of 2021 and economic impact is up 27.2%, standing at $1,284,951,900. That number is 47.6% higher than in June 2019.

RDS’s traveler sentiment study showed that 78.8% of prospective travelers to Florida were optimistic about personal health, but only 54.4% were optimistic about personal finances, compared to 70% in June 2021. When asked how close things are to returning to normal, 46.5% of people said they were close, compared to 51% last year. The biggest concern for prospective travelers was gas prices. Wittine’s data shows an expected dip in tourism numbers until at least October.