With hurricane season looming just over two months away, residents of St. Johns County are eagerly awaiting a final decision on whether they will soon have a local funding source to combat the increasingly critical issue of beach erosion.
The tourist development tax, also known as the bed tax, is the potential source in question, with a proposal to raise the tax from 4 to 5 percent currently under consideration. If approved, the tax increase is projected to generate an additional $2.57 million annually, and it is the hope of many residents that those funds would be designated for a beach renourishment plan.
On Feb. 26, following a request for recommendation from the Board of County Commissioners, the Tourist Development Council (TDC) discussed the proposal at great length, with numerous residents coming forward to voice their support.
“With 42 miles of beach, we are a coastal community,” County Commission District 4 candidate Dick Williams said. “It’s a huge asset, and for the purposes of the fifth cent, clearly it is a major tourist attraction. But the reality is, if we don’t have a long-term plan, we’re going to continue to see that asset go away.”
Ponte Vedra Beach resident Guy Rasch agreed, warning, “We’re losing people already. The two renters on either side of me, the rental properties, have not been able to fill their properties recently, because they didn’t have beach to go to. … You can have a conquistador and you can have a young lady in a bikini advertising coming to the beaches, but if you have no beach to come to, it doesn’t do us any good.”
Other residents echoed those sentiments, with some even voicing support for increasing the tax to 6 percent. St. Johns County Tourism and Cultural Development Director Tera Meeks advised, however, that the county is only currently eligible to raise the tax to 5 percent.
While the majority of the TDC expressed support for adding a fifth cent to the bed tax, there was some dissention. For example, St. Augustine Mayor Nancy Shaver – who left the meeting before the vote – felt that the resulting funds would be insufficient to truly make an impact on the issue of beach erosion.
“I don’t believe it is our role to solve what is a major issue across the state, and for that reason, I do not support levying the fifth cent—even though I believe, quite frankly, there is probably not much tourist resistance,” Shaver said. “This discussion is clearly being driven by the beach issue, and I think it’s the wrong thing for us to do. I think there is a huge problem in the county, in the state and nationally, but we’re not going to solve it by a penny of bed tax.”
Another topic of contention was how the funds would be allocated, with some people expressing hopes that they would also benefit the county’s other tourist attractions. Commissioner Jay Morris, however, stated he would only support raising the tax if the resulting funds were designated specifically for a beach management plan.
“There are no beaches,” he said. “The beaches aren’t there anymore. This is the only funding source available that we have to kick this (renourishment) program off, so I am totally in favor of it, if we can do that.”
Ultimately, the council voted – with one dissention – to recommend raising the bed tax from 4 to 5 percent, with the stipulation that the resulting funds be allocated “in total, or to the greatest extent possible, for beach renourishment.”
With that recommendation in mind, the Board of County Commissioners will put the matter to a final vote, with at least a 4-1 supermajority required for the proposal to be approved. Although a date has yet to be set for that vote, community members like Ponte Vedra Beach resident Martha Johnson are continuing to stress the urgency of the matter, stating: “If we lose the beaches, we lose everything.”