Beach business and civic leaders are up in arms over a county proposal that would allow the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention and Visitors Bureau to borrow $2.5-million from a beach restoration fund to pay for tourism marketing.
Pinellas County's beach communities generate fistfuls of property tax revenue. They don't like anyone leaving them out of the decision-making on how the money should be spent. Citing post-Sept. 11 woes, CVB Executive Director Carole Ketterhagen said her bureau needs the money to cover annual staff raises and hire an extra marketing representative.
"The fact is, the condition that occurred Sept. 11 and the downturn in the economy have created a shortfall for the marketing activity of the CVB," said Ketterhagen. She added that her budget has shrunk from a decline in lodging tax receipts because fewer tourists came after the terrorist attacks.
That excuse to raid the beach fund isn't good enough for Deborah Stambaugh, president of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce.
Stambaugh, whose organization's members contribute a sizable amount to the county tax base, has asked for greater accountability at the CVB. She believes the county can find an alternative to taking away money earmarked for fighting beach erosion.
In a July 1 letter to the CVB, Stambaugh posed 66 questions as part of a public information request intended to help her better understand how and where Ketterhagen's bureau spends tax money. Since the CVB is a county agency, all documents and procedures are public records.
Ketterhagen replied with a July 15 letter that outlined the recent successes of the CVB but declined to answer any of the 66 questions. She did, however, propose a workshop that would be open to beach chamber members.
In an interview with Weekly Planet, Ketterhagen said she could not yet answer most of the questions Stambaugh asked. She referred all questions to appropriate CVB representatives, who are preparing responses.
"We are in the process of answering the questions," Ketterhagen said. "... Anything that relates to a policy issue we will be answering."
Most crucial for Stambaugh and other beach business leaders is the $2.5-million borrowed over two years from the beach fund. They fear the beaches will need the money should the federal government make good on threats to stop subsidizing local efforts to pump sand back onto eroded beaches.
"You hear all the time that the federal government wants to get out of the beach-renourishment business," said St. Pete Beach City Manager Mike Bonfield.
Congressional members from landlocked states have trouble explaining to constituents why their tax dollars buy sand for wealthy coastal towns. Additionally, questions have been raised about the effectiveness of beach-restoration programs as well as the ecological damage they cause.
Whether the feds continue to subsidize the programs or not, Assistant County Administrator Mark S. Woodard believes the beach communities have nothing to fear. The county commission has resolved to reroute the money to the CVB temporarily and guarantee full repayment into the beach fund by 2006, at 4 percent interest.
"Will ... this transfer have an adverse impact on the beach enhancement program?" said Woodard. "The answer is no."
But it ain't just the money. "We have to keep in mind the message we're sending to the state and federal government about beach renourishment," Stambaugh said.
In addition to questions about the $2.5-million loan, Stambaugh asked Ketterhagen for Web site traffic information and any data regarding hotel referrals.
The beach chamber wants to know which hotels receive CVB referrals and how many they receive. A fear is that referrals go to big hotels such as the Sheraton Sand Key Resort and the Tradewinds Beach Resort & Conference Centers. Hotel referrals should be distributed fairly, Stambaugh believes.
But the CVB doesn't track hotel referrals, Ketterhagen said. When a prospective tourist calls, CVB representatives ask for location preference and then randomly select a hotel from the visitor's guide. "We promote the county and all of its 24 communities equally," Ketterhagen said.
Previous spats such as this have led the wealthy beach communities, whose leaders believe their tax dollars subsidize the rest of Pinellas, to threaten secession.
Those threats aren't likely to gain strength. The current hot-button issue for the Barrier Islands Government Council, the body that would lay the foundation for a beach county's government, is whether to continue offering free breakfasts at its meetings.
Although the Pinellas beach communities are quick to beat the war drum when they feel wronged by county government, disputes are generally settled amiably.
Ketterhagen was scheduled to meet beach representatives Aug. 14 at a public workshop intended to address Stambaugh's 66 questions. County commissioners are then set to vote on the CVB's proposed budget Aug. 20.
County Administrator Steve Spratt has recommended that commissioners approve the $2.5-million loan. "I believe that we all are keenly aware of the importance of our beaches and the contribution that they make to our economic vitality," Spratt wrote in a letter to commissioners. "The county has long supported the beaches and maintains an aggressive monitoring and maintenance program to ensure their health."
Stambaugh hopes the current flap will forge a greater understanding between the beaches and county government. "Ultimately, I hope we all become better partners," Stambaugh said. "This was a learning experience."
The letters exchanged between Deborah Stambaugh and Carole Ketterhagen, including Stambaugh's 66 questions, are available online at www.siliconbeachusa.com.
Contact Staff Writer Trevor Aaronson at 813-248-8888, ext. 134, or trevor.aaronson @weeklyplanet.com.