MARCO ISLAND — Collier County commissioners have agreed to spend nearly $1 million in tourist taxes to help fight erosion on another stretch of Hideaway Beach.
Twice before, commissioners have voted to spend the so-called "bed taxes" on other segments of the beach in a fight to keep the beach from washing away. Each time, questions arose about whether the public money should be spent on the beach because it's so secluded and hard to reach without a boat.
After more than an hour of debate and attempts to delay a decision until November, commissioners voted 4-1 in favor of a $925,000 grant that will pay for the installation of three erosion control devices on the east end of Hideaway Beach on Marco Island.
To approve the grant, commissioners had to find there was a "public interest" in spending the money, which comes from a 4 percent charge on hotel and other vacation stays in Collier County.
Commissioner Georgia Hiller voted against it, saying that approving the grant request the way it was presented would be an illegal use of tourist tax money.
"The bottom line is we can't use public dollars to benefit private property. We have to use public money to benefit a public purpose," she said.
Commissioner Tom Henning spoke against it, but ultimately voted for it.
This would be the final phase of a beach-rebuilding project that began in 2005.
While county staff didn't make a recommendation on the grant, the county attorney, Jeff Klatzkow, said it was "legally sufficient" to approve.
While the vote was favorable, some questioned whether it might be reconsidered. A supermajority of four out of five commissioners was needed to approve the grant. After the vote, Henning continued to question the spending.
Hiller said the spending requires more legal scrutiny and that the county clerk's office could refuse to write the check if there are legal concerns.
Klatzkow suggested he could have the approval reviewed by the Florida Attorney General's office.
"I think this needs to be validated," Hiller said.
The lingering questions has Erik Brechnitz, board chairman of the Hideaway Special Tax District, on edge. The district is contributing nearly $1.43 million toward the project.
"We got a favorable vote today," he said later Tuesday. "But I'm not so certain it's the final vote. The people who opposed this obviously are going to try to continue to find ways to deny us our application."
He questioned why Henning spoke so passionately against, then voted for, the grant.
Hideaway isn't considered an eligible beach for tourist taxes because it's more than a half-mile from public parking and bathrooms. But ineligible beaches can be considered for the tax money if there's high erosion and if the money is spent on erosion control devices, not sand, according to a legal opinion prepared by county staff for Tuesday's vote.
Hiller fought to delay the vote to next month, saying the grant request should have been brought by the county, not by the city of Marco Island and the Hideaway Beach Special Tax District.
The taxing district is paying for engineering, permitting, dredging and the placement of up to 25,000 cubic yards of stand. Permitting is under way and the project has been in motion for more than a year.
The district doesn't have enough money to pay for the entire project and attempts to get money from FEMA have been unsuccessful.
Hiller moved to delay the vote so that staff could come back with an estimate of how much the county would save on dredging with the installation of the three devices, also known as T-groins. She said she would support paying the county's "proportionate share," which would have been less than the amount the city and taxing district requested.
After Hiller's motion to postpone the vote failed, Commissioner Donna Fiala, whose district includes Marco Island, moved to approve the grant and to "move forward with it immediately," saying the T-groins are essential in making sure sand stays on the beach.
"I like the way it's set up right now," she said. "Everybody is paying a good share. I don't think those figures need to be changed any at all."
The city opposed a delay, with its attorney, Burt Saunders, saying it wanted a yes or no vote on Tuesday.
Despite questions about whether the vote will be reconsidered, the taxing district will continue to "move the ball down the field," Brechnitz said."We are in the final stages of our permit process," he said. "We hope to have a permit shortly after the first of the year."
Bids for the project will be sought before the permits are issued so there's no delay in a contractor getting started. The hope is to finish the project before the next turtle season arrives and before the next big storm hits.
Collier commissioners also moved another beach project forward Tuesday, hiring a Lake Worth company to add sand to eroded stretches of Vanderbilt and Naples beaches for an emergency renourishment.
The $674,000 project, including $243,000 of sand from an Immokalee mine, could kick off in early November, the county's coastal zone management director Gary McAlpin said. Money will come from tourist tax revenues.
Sand will be trucked from the mine and loaded onto conveyor belts to the beach. Sand will be added to dry parts of the beach, not into the water, between LaPlaya Beach and Golf Resort to the Ritz-Carlton and from Lowdermilk Park to south of the Naples Beach Hotel and Golf Club.
___ Staff Writer Eric Staats contributed to this report.