Tourist board spurns Vero plea for dune money
STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of February 23, 2012)
Shoring up the Conn Beach boardwalk should be finished next week, but the only thing the City of Vero Beach knows for sure is the project will not be paid for by the Indian River Board of County Commissioners.
Vero Councilwoman Tracy Carroll and City Manager Jim O’Connor fought hard to get some help – a $50,000 contribution from the tourist tax or “bed tax” money collected from city hotels and motels – for the dunes at Conn Beach, which Carroll called “one of the highlights of visitors to our county.”
“We’re just asking you for your help in providing us some funding to keep the Conn Beach boardwalk safe,” Carroll said.
Carroll asked her fellow Tourist Development Council members to share some of the $250,000 in the county budget for dune restoration.
O’Connor urged the six council members to look beyond the ownership or jurisdiction of the dollars in question and instead to focus on the common good of the county’s popular tourist beaches.
“Don’t think of it as your money versus our money. I think it’s a combination of everybody’s money,” O’Connor said. “It’s not our money or their money, it’s a joint effort.”
South beach resident Daniel Fourmont made a motion to give Vero $50,000 as a goodwill gesture.
“The storm that came through was pretty unusual,” Fourmont said. “Looking at the numbers in the spirit of cooperation and partnership and the funds coming from City of Vero Beach hotels that the county gets to enjoy, I move that we fund $50,000 with the City of Vero Beach providing the rest.”
Other members of the Tourist Development Council were not in such a charitable mood and defeated the motion 4-2. Prior to the vote, both sides argued their cases.
“We’re going to have to do Sector 5 (Vero city beaches) for them because they need a referendum and it’s going to cost the county millions,” County Administrator Joe Baird said. “If we keep chipping away at this, we’re not going to be able to do Sector 5. We’re going to spend every other county resident’s money and that’s pretty scary.”
City of Vero Beach voters years ago prohibited the city from spending tax dollars on beach replenishment. The Conn Beach project gets around that charter amendment because it’s being called emergency dune replenishment, not beach replenishment.
Commissioner Peter O’Bryan said he would not vote to give Vero the money because because the project is not a bona fide emergency, but neglected maintenance.
“In 2007-08 Vero had $65,000 in the budget for this, then $49,500 in 2008-09 and the current budget is cut by 61 percent,” O’Bryan said.
“This is one of those occurrences that became an emergency,” O’Bryan said, adding Vero had not funded the proper maintenance in the same way that the county has over the years.
Baird concurred with O’Bryan.
O’Connor took exception. “This is not routine maintenance. The unnamed storm came through and did substantial damage,” he said.
Other arguments against paying for the project ranged from poor planning on the city’s part to the Tourism Development Council being the wrong venue to bring the request.
Baird and Budget Director Jason Brown said that $50,000 was critical to the reserves the county needs to have on hand to meet local grant match requirements in the event of a hurricane. Fellsmere Mayor Susan Adams agreed.
“If you don’t have the money to play, they’re not going to come and help you out and we’ll be shoveling sand from Fellsmere onto the beaches,” she said.
Adams also said she didn’t like Vero officials’ suggestion that they were entitled to some of the bed tax money.
“I take a personal affront to the comment that the City of Vero Beach contributes more than half of the tourist tax and that the beaches are provided to us in the rest of the county,” Adams said. “It’s not neighborly.”
Budget Director Brown also said that the county is trying to find money in the budget to fund an artificial reef feasibility study, set to cost up to $250,000.
“We do not have that reef study funded, but that’s another mid-year request that we’ve gotten,” Brown said.
“I don’t want to give anyone the impression that we’ve got $250,000 of free funds sitting around,” the budget director added.