Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

Real news for working families.  An online newspaper

Columbia County

County 5 Blows off Tourist Development Council Hikes tax, says it forgot to ask for approval. Did it?

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – The recent 1% hike in the Columbia County BED tax, the County's Tourist Development Tax, was the topic of conversation at Wednesday's Tourist Development Council (TDC). Hotel owner Nick Patel claimed that the County didn't ask its approval to raise the tax, something which it has always done. The County said it forgot. Did it?

August 26, 2015, the 1%: hotel owner speaks out

During Wednesday's Tourist Development Council meeting, the recent approval of a 1% hike in the BED tax without the traditional consultation of the County's hotel and tourist-related business owners, the folks that collect the tax, was the hot topic of conversation.

Hotel owner Nick Patel, who said that his businesses are responsible for about 45% of the total BED tax collected, was unhappy about not being consulted by the County before it passed the tax.

The County's representatives at the meeting were newly elected Commissioner Evertt Phillips, who admittedly is clueless about most of the nuts and bolts of county government, and the newly hired Assistant County Manager, Scott Ward, who came to the County from the Alachua County School District without any county government experience. However, Mr. Ward is a Lake City/Columbia County native, which in Columbia County has become a perquisite for any big County job.

Mr. Patel told the council: "[I] never realized that the county had in its agenda to actually go ahead and vote for increasing the BED tax... I was a little bit frustrated and unhappy about the process in which the BED tax was raised. I in particular - and I'm sure many members who are here, who volunteer their time - felt that it was an ongoing communication. There was no consensus; there was no motion; there was no agreement or understanding, which has been the protocol in the past as long as I have been on the TDC Board... The sentiment of the TDC is displayed in the way of a recommendation to the County. Usually, the County takes that recommendation very seriously."


Commissioner Phillips added, "Right."

Hotel owner, Nick Patel

Mr. Patel continued, "The question was, the manner in which the BED tax was raised. The chairman [Commissioner Rusty DePratter], in my opinion, has failed to inform all the members down here. I think the chairman's responsibility: the buck stops at him... It is the first time it has happened. I can tell you that the hotel industry is unhappy about the manner in which the BED tax was raised."

"I think the chairman has to reason with this board as to why he did this and explain to the members down here and take us into confidence that the money which is going to be raised by the BED tax will be spent the way this body thinks is appropriate and not marginalize this board any further," he said.

Commissioner Phillips claimed it was a mistake, "I know there was a mistake made. So we are just going to have to go through it and make sure we try to get it right and not do it again. It needs to be taken care of with everybody."

TDC member and hotel owner Nupur Shukla also voiced displeasure at getting the cold shoulder from the county.

TDC member and Commissioner Bucky Nash's business partner, Brian Bickel, said, "It was just done a little bit different than we've done in the past."

Mr. Patel reminded Mr. Bickel, "Every penny, we voted on it."

Mr. Bickel said, "But we all agree it was going to be a necessary evil."

No one agreed with Mr. Bickel. The record does not support his claim.

This Year's BED Tax History in the Land of the Infamous 5

On April 30, 2015, Acting County Manager Ben Scott presented a PowerPoint to the County 5. There were a few slides which mentioned the BED tax.

According to the County's minimalist minutes, Mr. Scott "asked the Commission to take this information, study it and make recommendations to staff that will be discussed at the next scheduled meeting."

The next scheduled meeting was May 7, 2015. There were no recommendations from anybody regarding the budget. Mr. Scott did not report any.

The next scheduled meeting after that was May 21, 2015. There were no recommendations from anybody regarding the budget. Once again, Mr. Scott did not report any.

May 28: A special meeting – Scott asks for a 1% BED tax hike

On May 28, a special meeting of The 5 was called. The BED tax came up. Once again, Chairman DePratter approved a mostly useless agenda which was clearly designed to keep the public in the dark about which items were going to be voted on. That story is here: Columbia County 5: Agenda by PowerPoint – More Wacky Gov't From FL's Good Ole' Boys

The tap dance began.

Chairman DePratter, who had previously appointed himself chairman of the TDC, minimized the tax by telling The 5 that the taxes would come from outside the County.

Ben Scott at the June 17 TDC. Nothing that he said  made it into the minutes.

Shortly afterwards, Mr. Scott asked the County 5 to approve a 1% increase. Mr. Scott explained, "The revenues would be dedicated to the additional (unintelligible) sports facilities, as well as future reserves for capital investment -- capital improvements."

Commissioner Nash asked, "Are we gonna' advise the TDC Board, or are we just gonna' do it?"

Mr. Scott answered, "If you make this motion, I think at the next board meeting, they can -- we can -- explain that to the TDC Board, what we're doing with that additional tax."

Mr. Scott told The 5, "This is a specific tax. It can only be used -- the statute for this tax says it has to be used to promote tourism activities. The TDC has chosen sports marketing as a method of tourism development. We believe that this falls within the statute -- to maintain the facilities that they put out there for sports marketing."

According to the County Staff, mowing and watering the lawn and field maintenance is considered "sports marketing."

June 17: TDC minutes – minimalist to the 10th power

Paula Vann is the head of County tourism.

On June 17, Acting County Manager, Ben Scott, and his $95,000 sidekick, Assistant County Manager-in-training, Scott Ward met with the TDC.

There was discussion about the budget for Tourist Development.

The June 17 TDC minutes, also minimalist, left out the relevant remarks by hotel owner Patel. There is no indication of who prepared the minutes.  Columbia County continues to hide through its minutes what really happens and what was said at its public meetings.

The June TDC minutes mention that the 2016 budget included an increase in the BED tax. It doesn't say how much, nor anything else regarding the BED tax discussion other than "the discussion continued."

None of Mr. Patel's remarks made their way into the minutes:

• "What happens to the [tournament] revenue brought in?"

•  "The TDC is overcharged for ground maintenance."

•  "The TDC is already paying its fair share."

• "We should reserve that one penny [the Bed Tax]... for funding future projects."

• "The county needs to contribute more."

•  "The Hotels are paying more than their fair share."

•  "The penny should not be raised."

Last Wednesday's Discussion Concluded with Asst. County Manager Ward explaining taxes

Asst. County Manager Scott Ward

"I just want to make a couple of statements without trying to offend anybody. Tourism is all over Columbia County. It is not just the softball complex... The County more than does its share for tourism. I think you have to look at everything as a whole... Taxes don't directly tie to where they come from. I'm sure that you pay property tax for schools. But your tenants in your motels aren't going to the school. So, it's not always necessarily a fair mechanism, but that's the mechanism the law gives us... There are a lot of other things that impact tourism. There are a lot of other things in the County that we pay for and maintain. It's not just the softball complex."

Mr. Patel pointed out the County provided money for other tourism services and facilities before they increased the bed tax.

He told Mr. Ward, "That was never a rationale to justify increasing the bed tax and using the money. If we expand the horizon of thinking like that, then I guess there's no limits to it."


The County claimed it was a mistake not to notify and ask the TDC for a recommendation on the tax increase.

The overall record tells a different story.

The infamous Columbia County 5. The legend continues.

Comments (to add a comment go here)

This work by the Columbia County Observer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.


Make a comment • click here •
All comments are displayed at the end of the article and are moderated.