Another weekend. Another visit by President Donald Trump. And now, another idea on how to cover the costs of providing security during those trips to Palm Beach County.
Palm Beach County Commissioner Steven Abrams asked county staff to research the idea of using bed tax money to cover security and roadway management costs during Trump’s frequent trips to his Mar-a-Lago mansion on Palm Beach.
Abrams’ idea is the second in five days to emerge from a county commissioner looking to plug the multi-million dollar hole that Trump’s trips likely will bore into the county’s budget. County officials have pleaded with their federal counterparts for reimbursement, but, so far, those requests have not been met by a commitment to repayment.
Last week, Commissioner Dave Kerner floated the idea of assessing the owner of Mar-a-Lago a tax pegged to special benefits provided by the county, namely that extra security and roadway management Trump gets when he flies into town.
“Those are real issues: keeping cops off the street and diminishing our opioid epidemic response,” Kerner told the newspaper.
In an email Sunday to County Administrator Verdenia Baker and County Attorney Denise Nieman, Abrams asked them to see if money from the tourist development tax, the 6 percent tax on hotel/motel stays, which is commonly referred to as the bed tax, could be used to help defray the costs of Trump’s trips.
In mid-February, Sheriff Ric Bradshaw estimated those costs had already reached about $1.4 million.
Asking Baker and Nieman to look into the idea of using bed tax money, Abrams highlighted a section of state law that addresses how such money can be used.
“A county located adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean … may use up to 10 percent of the tax revenue received pursuant to this section to reimburse expenses incurred in providing public safety services, including emergency medical services as defined in s. 401.107(3), and law enforcement services, which are needed to address impacts related to increased tourism and visitors to an area,” the law states.
Glenn Jergensen, executive director of the Tourist Development Council, which is funded with bed tax money, said state law does allow counties to use bed tax money to used for law enforcement and emergency services. But Jergensen said his understanding of the law is that only counties with populations of less than 225,000 can use bed tax money that way.
Palm Beach County has a population of about 1.4 million.
The county meets the two other criteria in the law that would allow it to use bed tax money for law enforcement and emergency management. Those criteria are that the tax must generate at least $10 million per year and that the county have at least three municipalities.
Over the past three years, the bed tax has generated an average of $41 million per year in revenue in Palm Beach County, which has 39 municipalities.
If a population limit is the only reason the county can’t use bed tax money for law enforcement and emergency management, Abrams said that could be addressed by legislative action in Tallahassee.
“We can try,” Abrams said. “We know he’s going to be visiting for the next four years.”
Bed tax money is used to build sports facilities and to promote culture and tourism. Jergensen said all of the tax money is used each year.
“Bed tax money is pretty much accounted for,” he said of the funds. “They’re budgeted for. They all have a home.”
Abrams, however, said Trump’s trips aren’t only subtracting from the county’s bottom line; there are benefits, too.
“As we are aware, bed tax receipts increase during the president’s visits due to his being accompanied by his entourage and the press corps,” the commissioner wrote to Nieman and Baker.
The county is conducting a study to get a better understanding of the costs and benefits of Trump’s visits. That study is not expected to be completed until later this year.
County Mayor Paulette Burdick was cool to the idea of using bed tax money to defray Trump-related costs.
“I’m open to any creative solution to address this,” she said, “but my first choice is to have the federal government pay for those costs. I understand that we have to protect the president, but I’m not sure what the Secret Service should be doing and what we should be doing. Certainly, I wouldn’t be supportive of taking tourist development dollars from their currently assigned purposes.”
The county has formally requested a share of the $7 million federal officials have set aside to reimburse local governments for the cost of providing security to Trump when he was president-elect. New York City, where Trump also has a residence, submitted a $35 million reimbursement request.
Burdick sounded an optimistic note about figuring out a way to pay for security and road management during presidential visits.
“We’re less than 50 days into his presidency,” she said. “Hopefully, the federal will pay for it.”
Abrams said he wants the county to press on with efforts to get federal reimbursement. But looking into the idea of using tourist development dollars makes sense, too, he said.
“It’s certainly worth exploring,” he said.