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Scheme to tax island residents to put sand on beaches is shelved

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS, (Week of March 21, 2013)

The county’s Beach and Shore Preservation Advisory Committee on Monday put on hold a scheme to raise money for beach replenishment by charging island property owners – but not mainland residents – a fee prorated according to how much benefit they get from the beach.

Bob Bruce, president of Save Our Shores, presented the idea for a Municipal Services Benefit District, or a MSBU, to make up for money lost when the state and federal governments stopped contributing to county beach repair and renourishment projects.

Bruce, when he went to the podium, acknowledged the idea might be not be universally popular.

He and Jimmy Sellers, a Coastal Tech consultant who has helped create MSBUs in St. Lucie and two other Florida counties, explained how the district would work if the county created one.

First its boundaries would have to be established and then a method of determining the degree of benefit would have to be developed.

“In Santa Rosa County in the Panhandle, it was determined that a core area of businesses and condominiums on the barrier island would receive most of the benefit, and that area paid 70 percent of the assessment,” said Sellers. “Single-family homeowners on the ocean paid another 15 percent while island homeowners not on the water paid five percent.” The other 10 percent was assigned to county-owned beachfront property.

Bruce’s idea was similar.

As he explained it, the county bed tax, which now goes in part to pay for beach repairs and protection along the 23-mile barrier island, would be more tightly focused to pay for improvements on county-owned sections of beachfront, such as parks.

Other areas would be funded by the new assessment on island homeowners.

No new money would be raised on the mainland.

When Bruce asked for a motion on his proposal, which to be realized would have had to be approved by the committee and then by the county commission, Indian River Shores Vice Mayor Jerry Weick was the first to object. He said island residents already pay for more than 50 percent of county infrastructure while receiving only 4 percent of the benefit and made a similar point about schools.

“Indian River Shores pays something like $18 or $19 million in school taxes and we have about six or seven students,” he said. “Everyone in the county pays the school tax and we are OK with that, but if you start separating people out and charging certain people more, you will create animosity.”

Sebastian City Councilmember Andrea Coy said animosity already existed among her constituents. “I represent 22,000 people who are tired of the county spending tens of millions of their taxes fixing beaches that many of them never visit,” she said. “The people on the island who get the benefit should pay a little more.”

Weick made a motion that the committee vote to continue current funding mechanisms without the addition of a tax district.  The motion was not immediately seconded.

Several committee members, including Christian Hendricks, acknowledged there is a need for new funding but argued that approving a tax district would be premature because the county does not have a clear picture of its beach repair revenue or costs.

That idea gained ground as discussion continued, with various proposals for getting a clearer picture of resources and needs before voting on a tax district.

County Budget Director Jason Brown said a similar method had been discussed in the past when the county’s 10-year beach preservation plan was created. He said a type of tax district had been included on a menu of funding options, but that the county had not included it in the final plan.

The 10-year plan has to be updated this year, and the county is poised to hire consultants to advise on that process.  The consensus at the meeting was to let those experts figure out how much money the county needs for beach repair, how much it has and then consider whether a MSBU is a good idea.

Weick’s motion that the committee not approve a MSBU was amended to include the words “at this time,” and it passed by a voice vote.

William Ferrell Jr. thanked Bruce and Seller for bringing the idea of a MSBU forward. “We have to start thinking outside the box and it was good to have this vehicle for funding presented to us.”

Bruce said after the meeting he could see the wisdom of getting a clearer picture of the overall beach repair situation before deciding whether to go ahead with a special assessment district.

“I presented an idea and it got shot down,” he said.