published: Wednesday, April 24, 2013
Tax Collector may start handling tourist tax money
By BARRY FOSTER
SEBRING - While the debate rages around whether the Highlands County tourist tax should be raised, or whether such a tax should even be assessed at all, it now appears the method of collecting the levy could change.
Highlands County Tax Collector Eric Zwayer confirmed that he now is looking at taking on that task. Currently it is the state of Florida that takes in and hands out the local tax on stays of six months or less.
"It has been on my radar for some time but I wanted to get the driver's license operation going smoothly first," he said.
Zwayer said local administration of driver's licenses proved to be somewhat of a challenge. He noted the early days of processing the permit applications were a bit rocky,
"It was like Murphy's Law - what could go wrong did go wrong. But it has all settled down now and is running fairly smoothly," he said.
Zwayer's office also now is handling the dispersal of birth certificates, which makes the driver's license dispensing a more one-stop operation.
He said his goal is to begin collecting the tourist tax beginning at the start of the 2014 calendar year.
"I have been in touch with tax collectors in other counties that do it," Zwayer said. "Each of them does it a bit differently."
After conducting preliminary research, Zwayer commenced setting up preliminary timelines, establishing the process, auditing and enforcement elements in an effort to set up a methodology that makes sense both in terms of costs and in terms of service.
"At 3 percent of the total, we are only looking at about $9,000 a year to the tax collector's office. That is based on the Tourist Development Commission's current figures," he said.
However, with local enforcement, Zwayer believes that the collection could increase - when all who those who should be paying the tax are assessed for it.
"It won't be a money generator for the county but it could be self-sustaining and it would be good for the county as a whole," he said.
Zwayer contended that by making certain of compliance that all entities that should be collecting an remitting the two percent assessment, it would create "a level playing field" between competitors.
"In other words, people who are collecting the tax won't be competing with those who are not," he said.
There has been discussion about raising the assessment on all lodging for those in the county for six months or less. The increase from 2 to 3 percent could generate an extra $150,000 per year if current tourist numbers remain strong. However, some citizens have called the motion by Avon Park city councilman Terry Heston into question - asking if his suggestion to raise the tax reflects the opinion of the sitting council, or was just an idea Heston had independently,
"He is supposed to represent the city council as the voting member from Avon Park isn't he?" asked former Avon Park Mayor Tom Mackin. "I have not seen anywhere that this came before the council and they either voted on it or gave their approval by consensus."
However, when the quesion was put before council, Avon Park attorney Gerald Buhr said once appointed, Heston could make motions and voted as he wished. Buhr said if the council had a problem with his votes or actions, they could replace him on the Tourist Development Council with somebody else.
The tourist tax discussion was to have come up before the Highlands County Board of County Commission for a discussion this past Tuesday night. However, that was called off after recommendations by the Tourist Development Commission were deemed to be incomplete.
While the TDC board included a recommendation to raise the tax as well as a new schedule on how to spend the money, they neglected to say how they intended to disperse money already collected in the TDC cofffers.
Because the Highlands County commission's night meeting had been dedicated to a discussion on the recommendations, it was called off on the strength of the shortfall. There is no indication on when that issue will next be brought before county commissioners.
Psychoanalysis (by: Blindman~ - 4/25/2013)
Unless Mr. Macklin has a personal reason against the tax increase, he was probably upset for being bypassed in the decision making process through the one oddball on the council.
Why not raise it? (by: why not? - 4/25/2013)
This is not a tax the residents pay. Its a tax the tourists pay. Hasn't this reporter ever been out of town? 3 cents is nothing for them to pay at a hotel. Other counties charge upwards of 14% AND NO ONE BLINKS. Besides, what on earth does Heston have to do with this. It seems biased reporting because Foster hates Avon Park as he so frequently insults its residents on his radio show. Anything coming from Macklins mouth always has undertones of his own agenda. good grief.
OMG (by: Mama - 4/25/2013)
Take a spelling class Please! You make bacteria look brilliant. You probably won't even "get" this...
Taxes (by: non conpliant - 4/25/2013)
Screw the tax collector. i aint supporting walfare recepiants.
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