DESTIN – The City Council was called out Monday for failing to notify the public of its intention to vote to significantly raise short-term rental registration fees.
“It is 1,000% mandatory that you disclose to people when you’re going to do things like change fees dramatically,” Destin resident Bill Reddington told council members. “Disclosure is what it’s all about, because you know you’re going to get some pushback on it.”
City officials have been talking for some time about raising some of the fees they charge, and bumping the short-term rental registration fees was an item discussed at council meetings and workshops before Monday’s vote, according to Destin Mayor Gary Jarvis.
But the specific recommendation that the city do away with its $200 flat fee and begin charging on a graduated basis starting at $500 and running up to $700 never appeared on the agenda prepared before to the meeting or online.
City Manager Lance Johnson requested just prior to the fee issue being brought before the council that the graduated fee schedule be added to the agenda.
Johnson reported to those at the meeting that he had handed council members a sheet of paper prior to the meeting that called for two corrections to the original proposal to amend the fee schedule.
The first was the detailed description of how the graduated short-term rental registration fees would work, with charges of $500 to be assessed to units less than 2,499 square feet, $600 for units between 2,500 and 4,999 square feet and $700 for anything larger. The second was simply a spelling error.
Johnson did offer to read his proposed amendment to the fee schedule “for the people who don’t have a copy.”
The council voted 6-1 to approve the hikes.
Destin resident Ken Wampler, president of Newman-Dailey Resort Properties and a member of the Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council, said after the vote that he was “taken by surprise” by Johnson’s mid-meeting amendment action.
“You approved a fee schedule that wasn’t published. The fee schedule currently on your website doesn’t have anything to do with changing the short term rental registration fees. It’s nowhere to be found,” Wampler said.
Wampler reminded council members that three years ago the short-term rental registration fees in Destin were $50.
“What you did tonight was raise the lowest fee to $500 from $200,” he said.
Wampler told the council “I don’t think you have to justify why you did what you did,” but added that the perception of what he’d seen unfold before him was not good.
“No one had this information until Lance read it here tonight,” he said. “I’m not sure that’s how you want to govern, or at least be viewed as governing the city.”
Johnson never responded to either Reddington or Wampler.
Johnson on Tuesday requested that a reporter’s questions about the meeting be emailed to him. He did not, however, respond to them.
Although Jarvis defended the council’s action to vote on the fee hikes, he also said he couldn’t argue with what Wampler and Reddington had said.
“They kind of had a legitimate complaint. We missed it and didn’t put it on the briefing material,” he said. “Somebody could complain, but there’s not anything intentional or a legal violation, according to our attorney. It wasn’t a blindside.”
City Attorney Kyle Bauman confirmed he saw no Sunshine Law violation on the council's part.
“The fee schedule was on the agenda,” he said. “The council is free to change any resolution however they want (during the course of a meeting) and it was all on the agenda.”
Chatham Morgan was the only council member to vote against the fee schedule changes, which also will include hikes to beach management fees, parks and recreation fees, library fees and the fees charged to put commercial vessels in the water.
“Since we are not decreasing our ad valorem taxes, I can’t support this,” Morgan said at the meeting. “It’s a tax by another name.”
Morgan did not return a phone call Tuesday seeking comment.