PHOTOS: Tourism board advising Collier commission to cut county museum funding

— For years, tourists have helped keep the lights on at Collier County-owned museums.

The money for museum operations comes from the county’s tourist tax — a 4 percent charge on all hotel and other short-term stays. But the Tourist Development Council — a county advisory board — is recommending that come to an end.

At a meeting Aug. 24, the council voted to support the change, which was recommended by a special committee it appointed to study ways to spend the tax dollars more wisely. Collier County commissioners have to make the final decision and the idea has stirred controversy.

“It’s got me concerned. That’s for sure,” said Ron Jamro, Collier County Museum director.

The operating budget for the county-owned museums this year is about $1.2 million. All that money comes from the tourist tax. Jamro said he doesn’t see any alternative, especially in these tough economic times when local governments have been forced to slash their budgets.

“If the funds aren’t replaced from another source then that’s all she wrote,” Jamro said. “That is the end of the museums. I can’t think of any other source to tell you the truth.”

In an executive summary prepared for last week’s Tourist Development Council meeting, county staff said, “Eliminating operating funds from county museums will have serious operating implications. There are currently no general fund reserves to cover these costs, so these reductions in tourist tax funding will result in greatly reduced services or the closing of museums.”

In the next six months, two more county-owned museums are expected to open, which means more money will be needed to support operations. The Naples Depot, which is undergoing a major renovation, is expected to reopen early next year. The new Marco Island historical museum — built with private dollars — is slated to open by February and will be turned over to the county.

“There will ultimately be by the middle of next year five county museums,” Jamro said. “That’s five mouths to feed and someone would hopefully find a way to do that.”

Bill Perdichizzi, a vice president with the Marco Island Historical Society and co-chairman of the capital campaign for the city’s new museum, called the council’s recommendation “insane.”

“They can’t possibly fund the county museums out of the general fund,” he said. “They are cutting back on people and everything else to keep the county budget balanced.”

The Marco Island museum is slated to get $80,000 next year for operations and maintenance. It has yet to receive any county money for the design and construction of displays, which Perdichizzi said are critical to the success of the museum.

“We have no funds to spend on it,” he said.

The Tourist Development Council is recommending a three-year phase out of the tourist tax dollars that now go to county-owned museums. The money would be reduced by a third each year, starting in fiscal 2011.

At last week’s meeting, council members noted that other Florida destinations don’t use tourist tax dollars to run county museums. They also said market research shows museums don’t bring tourists to the county, though they’re visited by out-of-towners.

“The county commissioners could turn it down very easily because they could say they don’t have the money,” said Murray Hendel, who headed up the special committee appointed by the Tourist Development Council. “That could very well be true.”

After meeting nine times and hearing input from others, the special committee, made up of four members of the Tourist Development Council, came up with 10 recommendations. The council rejected only one of them, sending the rest on for a vote by county commissioners.

Most of the recommendations aren’t seen as controversial. But there are two others that are likely to stir some debate because they involve using money set aside for beach projects to beef up marketing in the county.

The Tourist Development Council has recommend redirecting $500,000 from emergency beach renourishment reserves annually to marketing for two years. The reserves are tapped to repair damages from hurricanes or other bad storms. The county’s Coastal Advisory Committee voted against the recommendation, saying it could pose serious problems in the future.

The council also recommends taking $500,000 a year from a reserve account for major beach renourishment projects for two years — also to support more advertising and marketing. The Coastal Advisory Committee voted against this proposal too.

Major renourishments happen every eight to 10 years to put sand back on the beach that has washed away. Every year, $2 million is set aside from the tourist tax for future projects. If money is diverted to tourism promotion, it could delay the next project up to two years, which could compromise the quality of the beaches and increase costs, opponents have argued.

The next major beach renourishment is scheduled for 2013.

It was Hendel’s idea to create a special committee to look into how the tourist tax dollars are spent and come up with recommendations for improvement. In the end, he opposed some of the recommendations that came out of discussions.

Hendel supported the proposal to redirect money from the emergency beach reserve fund to marketing. But he was against tapping additional money set aside for major beach renourishment. “I thought it would set a very bad precedent,” he said.

Here are the other recommendations headed to the County Commission:

n Interest collected on tourist tax money should be used for tourism-related purposes and not to cover operating costs at the county clerk’s office or general fund expenses.

n The county should dedicate more employee time to collecting unpaid tourist taxes.

n The county should support a class-action lawsuit to collect the right amount of tourist tax from online companies such as Expedia and Travelocity.

n The Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention and Visitors Bureau should combine its publication, “Florida’s Last Paradise,” with other visitor magazines produced by chambers of commerce in Naples and Marco Island.

n A new position should be created to coordinate literature, training and research at all visitor centers in Naples, Marco Island, Everglades City and Immokalee. It would be paid for jointly by the tourism bureau and the Greater Naples Chamber.

The special committee also recommended not to increase the tourist tax at this time. Hoteliers have opposed it, saying now is not the time to up the costs for travelers, who are watching every dime in a bad economy.

Hendel said the committee followed its mandate and “tried to do what was right.”

“We did a lot of work,” he said. “We spent a lot of time on this. Whatever happens, happens.”

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