COLLIER COUNTY — A one percentage point increase in Collier County's tourist tax got the backing of the Naples City Council by a one-vote margin Wednesday, but it's not a done deal.
Under the proposal by the Collier Community Alliance, a countywide civic group, the tax on hotel stays and short-term rentals would go from 4 percent to 5 percent.
The tax increase would raise another $3.5 million to $4 million each year to spend on beach renourishment and tourism marketing, which have been at the center of a long-running tug-of-war over their shares of the tourist tax pool.
Alliance Chairman Murray Hendel said he would ask the group whether it wanted to push the proposal forward to the Tourist Development Council and to the Collier County Commission, which would have the final say on the tax. If commissioners took up the proposal, passing it would require a supermajority vote of four of five commissioners.
"I was hoping to get a 7-0 vote (from the Naples City Council)," Hendel said. "We didn't get it."
Council members Gary Price, Dee Sulick and Teresa Heitmann did not favor the plan, saying they wanted to look more closely first at reallocating how the current tax is spent among beaches, museums and tourism promotion.
"We don't have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem," Councilman Gary Price said.
A recommendation is on its way to county commissioners later this month that would reduce the tourist tax money going to museums and beach parks and use the money instead to boost beach renourishment and tourism promotion funds.
The beach fund, which also pays for dredging the county's inlets, would increase by $500,000, to a total of $5.3 million; the marketing fund would increase by $1.5 million to $5 million.
Naples Mayor John Sorey and council members Bill Barnett, Doug Finlay and Sam Saad backed the idea of upping the tax to 5 percent, with the caveat that beach renourishment's share of the beach fund be increased from $2.5 million to $4 million each year.
Collier tourism director Jack Wert questioned whether it would be possible to give that much money to beach renourishment, pointing out that state law requires a fifth percent of a tourist tax to be spent only on sports stadiums and marketing.
That means that, without a change in the state law, the county would have to reallocate the money generated by the first 3 percent of the tax to increase the beach allocation. Wert said that much money for beaches would cut his office staff and museum allocations too deeply.
"I don't know how you get there," he said.
Finlay said the county needs a higher tourist tax to avoid scrambling for money for beach and inlet upkeep and to get closer to affording year-round tourism marketing.
"The hotels can benefit and the citizens can benefit from a fifth cent," Finlay said.
Hoteliers oppose the move, though. They say the lower tax gives Collier County a competitive advantage in attracting convention business from other Florida counties that have a higher tourist tax rate.
Marco Island Marriott general manager Rick Medwedeff told the council that, of all its competing counties, Collier spends the most on beaches and the least on marketing.
"We do have a spending problem, and that needs to be addressed," Medwedeff said.
Hendel, with the Collier Community Alliance, said it "kind of boggles the mind" to think that Collier County does not have a 5 percent tourist tax, which most of the county's tourism competitors already have.
"If they tell you they need that competitive advantage, I say that's hogwash," Hendel said.