Destin councilwoman responds to guest column by County Commissioner Kelly Windes, ‘There always are two sides to every story’

There has been much coverage of the Destin City Council’s concerns regarding the equitable redistribution of bed tax revenue. The public has a right to know all the facts and listen to all sides of the story. As a result, I believe it important to set the record straight in terms of the numbers represented by Commissioner Kelly Windes as the amount of funds Okaloosa County “gives” to Destin. His implication that the County generously gives Destin far more than its allotted share is not only inaccurate, it is completely misleading. I have addressed each of his points individually:

1. From what I’m hearing, the people in general aren’t much interested in this recent attack on everything — certainly not the “jumping ship” part. I would respectfully have to say, “Not so much,” Mr. Mayor.

Every response I received, and continue to receive on this issue, has been in support of doing whatever is necessary to receive our fair share. The only concerns I have heard are from people wondering how long it would take to accomplish change and questions asking whether leaving (Okaloosa County) is really possible.

2. Ongoing operations and maintenance: Tourist Development Department (TDD) has funded $2.2 million since 2013 for lifeguards on Destin’s beaches. In addition, over that same time period, TDD bed tax funding has given $1.15 million to Destin for beach cleaning services (including 4 full-time employees, 4 seasonal employees, plus associated machinery and equipment).

These expenses are not unique to Destin and are also provided to Okaloosa Island as the other subdistrict with public beach. In fact, the same amount is spent on Okaloosa Island for lifeguards, despite the fact they have fewer miles of beach and significantly fewer visitors: Destin has 6.5 miles of beach, Okaloosa Island has 3 miles of beach; Destin has at least three times the number of visitors. In fact, Okaloosa Island has been provided the funds for four full-time, year-round beach safety employees while Destin only has one. Okaloosa Island has seven public accesses — each with restrooms; Destin also has seven accesses but only two have restrooms. 

More funds are consistently redistributed to Okaloosa Island. The TDD Financial Update for September 2016, indicating Fiscal Year 2015-2016 totals, shows significantly more funds were spent on Okaloosa Island beaches and parks ($1,042,252) than were spent for the same items in Destin ($741,916).

In regards to beach cleaning, first, TDD bed tax funding is not “giving” Destin anything. They are providing a service that has also been provided to Okaloosa Island for the same time period. Second, in terms of beach cleaning services, anyone who visits the beach in Destin can speak to the fact that the quality of the beach cleaning in Destin has significantly decreased, both in frequency and level of service, since the county assumed the contract in 2014.

3. Natural resources restoration and preservation: The County has contributed $8 million since 2007 for Destin beach renourishment projects.

It is true that $7.9 million was spent for the restoration of west Destin beaches. However, once again, this is not unique to Destin and such uses of funding are evidenced in Fort Walton and Okaloosa Island:

● In Fiscal Year 2013-2014, $1.24 million was budgeted for the Fort Walton Beach Florida Department of Environmental Protection Dune Restoration Grant (where are the dunes that need restoring in Fort Walton Beach?); $218,000 on the FDEP Dune Walkover Grant for the construction of six walkovers; and $313,000 on an FDEP Urban Corridor Grant. In Fiscal Year 2014-2015, $1.06 million was spent on capital improvements to Okaloosa Island beach access points, and an Okaloosa Island Living Shoreline Project was approved with estimated costs of $1.5-$4 million.

● That same year, $578,982 was budgeted just for beach park restroom cleaning! Keep in mind this DID NOT include the City of Destin’s beach parks as they were not covered until our 2016 specific request. Thus, this $578,982 only covered the bathrooms on Okaloosa Island and possibly the county’s James Lee Park on the east side of Destin. Compare this with the $440,000 they thought was too expensive to clean and maintain all of the beaches in Destin and Okaloosa Island.

4. Other economic development initiatives: TDD bed tax funding has given $7 million to Destin for media exposure since 2012. Also, the county has contributed $9.4 million to two Community Redevelopment Agency districts within Destin since 2001: Town Center and Harbor.

Again, the TDD is not “giving” Destin anything. Per Florida State Statute 125.0104, the $7 million referenced as funding for media exposure is an expenditure for all of the Emerald Coast, per state statute — not just Destin.

Further, the $9.4 million stated as a county contribution to our CRAs is a complete misrepresentation. The County has received TIFF funding for two City CRAs of approximately $10 million since 2001. This is required by Florida State Statute 163 Part III for all CRAs. All CITY/COUNTY property value growth from the inception of a CRA (the base) until the CRA dissolves is given to the CRA for improvements within the CRA boundary. This is not given to the City by the County but is required by state law due to the designation of the CRA.

5. Overall, there is nearly $10 million in current year funding and over $30 million in recent years’ funding initiatives for Destin.

The City has no knowledge of any initiative funding made by the County in this regard. This is most likely in reference to state/federal grants and BP funding which does not affect or utilize any county funds.

6. The Sheriff also told me that “no one” from the City asked to speak with him on the matter. I would add that no one has called me from the City before or after the meeting with the exception of the mayor.

City staff and I have spoken to various officers with OCSO this year and in years past. In fact, I have spoken with Sheriff Larry Ashley and other OCSO officers specifically about funding issues several times in the past year, and Sheriff Ashley and I both went to Tallahassee and spoke in favor of the additional 10 percent in bed tax for public safety. I also spoke directly with Fire Chief Kevin Sasser in the days before our meeting.

7. It seems to me that getting the facts, along with communication and dialogue, would produce better results for the citizens than negativity and posturing. I do think that the Tourist Development Council (TDC) statute involving the 10 percent rule should be clarified. The way it stands now, it divides the community. Let’s find out once and for all what is or is not included.

Typical appeals, requests, presentations and meetings have not been successful, and tend to fall on deaf ears or a quick fix to appease us temporarily. I have reached out to Mr. Windes and received no response. As a result, then-Rep. Matt Gaetz facilitated a sit-down meeting in January 2015 that included Windes, Ed Schroeder, John Hofstad, Gaetz and myself to discuss why we were not receiving an equitable redistribution of the bed tax.

These issues pre-date me and most of the current council, yet they are recurring concerns that continually fail to be addressed by the TDC. Traditional mechanisms and means of communication have not worked for more than 10 years. Standing up for our city and discussing and acting on very real concerns, supported with data and statistics, is not posturing. It is doing what is right for the people of Destin.

8. I think my colleagues will join me when I say I consider my job to be an honor and a privilege and will continue to listen to the “people” in my pursuit of being a good partner with all the municipalities. Will I allow these actions of Destin City Council to cloud my judgment or let it become personal? “Not So Much!”

As Destin’s representative to the County Commission, I would think Mr. Windes would find it important and part of his public service to listen to the City’s needs and advocate on our behalf.  As elected city council members, we represent the interests of Destin as relayed to us by our constituents. I would think that a full and faithful discharge of his public duties as an elected official representing Destin would warrant Mr. Windes’ consultation of and collaboration with the City Council and Mayor of the city he is ethically bound to represent.

The comments made by Commissioner Windes caused many people in the county to question the City of Destin’s concerns. Although Commissioner Windes’ comments sounded damning, they were distorted and failed to accurately portray the true situation.

There has been much back and forth between the City and County regarding issues surrounding bed tax and fairness. Do I want to continue this written and verbal tennis match? In the words of Commissioner Windes: “Not so much.”

It is time to begin discussions and planning so that we can reach a joint resolution: amicably, fairly and equitably. Here’s to moving forward in the name of the people of Okaloosa County and Destin. After all, they are the ones who are suffering the most.

 

This guest column is from Dr. Prebble Q. Ramswell, Councilwoman for the City of Destin