NAPLES — A Collier County civic group is revving up a push this week to increase the county's tourist tax, an issue that has ignited controversy in the past about how the county pays for beach projects and markets itself to visitors.
The Collier Community Alliance, a nonprofit group of civic leaders, is presenting a proposal Wednesday to the Naples City Council to increase the tax on hotel stays and short-term rentals from 4 percent to 5 percent.
County commissioners would have the final say.
The increase would raise an additional $3.5 million to $4 million that could be used to better pay for beach renourishment and do more and better tourism promotion, tax increase supporters say.
Collier Community Alliance Chairman Murray Hendel suggested Monday that if a 5 percent tourist tax were enacted and it raised $4 million, beach renourishment might get $2.5 million and tourism advertising might get $1.5 million.
An increase in the tax has been talked about for years but has never gotten past opposition from large hoteliers who say it will hurt their business and is unfair.
"I'm totally against it," said Rick Medwedeff, general manager of the Marco Island Marriott. "I don't want to lose that competitive advantage."
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Collier County is one of only two counties with a tourist tax less than 5 percent, and Medwedeff said the lower rate gives Collier hotels an advantage when attracting group business.
He cites industry figures that showed that through the third quarter of 2012, the Naples-Marco area had the highest group business occupancy rate in South Florida.
Hendel, though, said local hotels have their competition beat on location alone.
"They don't need the (tax) advantage, and the (local) taxpayers have been suffering," he said.
Hendel said he might shop the tax increase idea to the Marco Island City Council and to the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce before taking it to the county's Tourist Development Council. Hendel is chairman of the TDC; Medwedeff is vice chairman.
Upping the tax would require a supermajority vote — approval by four of the five county commissioners.
Hendel said the Collier Community Alliance is raising the tax increase issue now because of debates over the size of beach renourishment projects and concerns about Clam Pass and Doctors Pass closing from the shifting of sand.
If you go
Naples City Council meets at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday at City Hall, Eighth Street South.
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"All those items are on the table right now and money is very short," Hendel said.
Hendel has a history with the debate over the tourist tax increase, most recently when he suggested at a TDC meeting in September 2011 that the group create a subcommittee to look into the idea. That never happened.
In 2009, a TDC subcommittee chaired by Hendel decided not to recommend an increase after reviewing options to get more money for tourism promotions. Hoteliers fought the increase, saying it was bad timing in a bad economy.
At the time, some in the community were concerned that the increase would be used to pay for a controversial new spring training stadium in the Naples area as part of the effort to bring the Chicago Cubs to Collier.
Talk of increasing the tourist tax comes as commissioners prepare to consider a change Feb. 26 in how the county uses tourist tax revenues. The TDC voted unanimously last week to recommend a change in the allocation of tourist tax dollars.
Among the proposed changes, the allocation for beach renourishment would go from 34 percent to almost 37 percent and tourism promotion's share would go from 25 percent to 35 percent. Beach parks and county museums would get a smaller share.
More is needed for beaches, Naples Mayor John Sorey said.
"The reality is that if we don't maintain our beaches, then we are going to have a serious problem from a tourism standpoint," he said.