JUST PLAIN TALK: Let's spend tax revenue wisely
Eight people drowned on June 8, 2003; I remember the water didn't look threatening, but it was.
Helicopters swooped along the beach all afternoon. In response, Walton County began a seasonal lifeguard program. While the program, funded with bed tax money, has been wildly successful, the time to institute a year-round program is long over-due. Kudos to the interim directors for their foresight.
Having year-round lifeguards trained as EMTs, then supplemented during the summer season, is necessary. The initial proposal, according to media reports, calls for full-time lifeguards at all regional accesses. Also, the plan increases the time lifeguards are on duty. Instead of adding two additional hours in the morning, extend the time on duty an additional hour or two in the afternoon. More people swim late in the afternoon than in the morning.
Adding full-time EMTs will be expensive, but the Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) has sufficient resources. Heck, Walton County Tourist Development Council is like the old woman who lived in a shoe; they have so much money they don't know what to do. So when they crunch the numbers, include all costs; don't' overlook the pension contribution and insurance.
Bed tax dollars, collected by the Walton County TDC, have spending restrictions and limitations. However, we should look at legal ways to use bed tax money because there are costs directly related to tourism borne by local property taxes.
For example, one afternoon, a fire truck rumbled down Blue Mountain Road, lights flashing and sirens blaring. At first, I assumed it was a smoke alarm going off in a condo, but the three EMTs on the scene started searching the Gulf with binoculars. Shortly after, a lifeguard joined them. Fortunately, it was a false alarm. But, unfortunately, any time the South Walton Fire District responds, local taxpayers pay the bill. With a full-time lifeguard on duty, we wouldn't.
The TDC-sponsored free parking at Grayton Beach State and Topsail State Park ended, surprising everyone, then was resuscitated. Whatever wires got crossed with Florida State Parks, we have to fix it before next summer. Beaches are super-crowded, and it makes sense to have a way for tourists to get to the Gulf.
Last November, Okaloosa County residents approved a half-cent sales tax dedicated to school improvements, repairs, and security upgrades. Surprising everyone, collections are over expectations, perhaps 10 percent or even higher. Don't forget, tourists, not locals, pay the bulk of the tax. A half-cent sales tax could be used to improve roads from Paxton to Grayton Beach. The Okaloosa County School District set up an online dashboard so taxpayers could monitor the projects without digging through layers of reports.
Nobody likes paying taxes, but no one in Walton County pays bed taxes. The bulk of sales taxes come from tourists. To avoid the sales tax, learn to cook — groceries are exempt; meals from restaurants aren't.
You can't always get what you want, but Buz Livingston, CFP, can help you figure out what you need. For specific advice, visit livingstonfinancial.net or drop by 2050 West County Highway 30A, M1 Suite 230.