Walton County to consider raise for TDC executive director currently making $152,159
DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — Walton County commissioners want a broad-based study of public tourist development organizations across Florida before deciding whether to approve a salary increase for Jay Tusa, executive director of the county's Tourist Development Council.
But that's just part of the process the commission laid out Tuesday for considering a raise for Tusa, a process for which they didn't set any specific timeline.
In addition to the salary study, commissioners want a performance review for Tusa, and Commissioner Mike Barker asked to take a look at Tusa's contract to see if it includes any performance standards to use as a means to decide whether a salary hike is warranted.
Tusa has been the TDC's executive director since 2016, at which time he was paid $119,500 annually. Tusa has subsequently received cost-of-living adjustments and other salary increases, with the last increase coming two years ago.
Tusa's salary for the current fiscal year is $152,159, according to county payroll data. His salary is paid out of proceeds from the 5% tax imposed on short-term (less than six months) lodging accommodations south of Choctawhatchee Bay. Expenditures from those "bed tax" receipts must be approved by county commissioners.
At Tuesday's commission meeting, TDC Chairwoman Jennifer Frost brought forward a request from the TDC board, approved unanimously at its February meeting, asking the county to review the salaries of the TDC directors in neighboring counties and to consider an increase for Tusa.
Okaloosa County's Tourist Development Department director, who has been in the position for slightly less than four years, earns $168,521 annually. Bay County's TDC director, who has been in that post for more than 13 years, is paid $226,000.
Other data gathered by Walton's TDC in support of a salary hike for Tusa included metrics on staff numbers and bed tax receipts across the three counties.
Walton's TDC has a staff of 76 people. Okaloosa's TDC operations has 58 people and Bay County's TDC has 21 people.
In terms of bed tax revenue, Walton County collected $31.3 million in the 2020 fiscal year, while Bay County brought in $22.7 million and Okaloosa's receipts totaled $19 million. Those totals are down from the 2019 fiscal year in both Bay and Okaloosa counties, but are up for Walton County over the 2019 fiscal year.
Bay County collected $29 million in bed taxes for the 2019 fiscal year, while Okaloosa collected $23 million. Walton County's collections for fiscal 2019 were $27.7 million, with the tax rate then at 4% instead of the current 5% rate.
In Walton, bed tax revenue is used in a variety of ways. In addition to paying TDC personnel, the dollars are used to promote the county as a tourist destination, fund a lifeguard program, build and maintain beach accesses and support local events, among other purposes.
In asking for the salary review, Smith noted that during Tusa's almost five-year tenure, the economic impact of tourism on Walton County has risen from $3.2 billion to $5.3 billion annually.
According to minutes from the February TDC meeting, board member Scott Russell suggested that salary and other data be collected from neighboring counties. Paraphrasing Russell, the TDC meeting minutes noted that Russell "said compensation is a reflection of revenues, and our revenues are not going south anytime soon."
Tusa, who was present at the TDC meeting, told board members that the council's performance should be credited to the entire TDC team, and he would like to see salary discussions broadened to include the full staff.
At Tuesday's commission meeting, Chairman Trey Nick told Frost that “the right step for this (consideration of a raise for Tusa) would be for us to do a performance evaluation on Jay before we can consider anything." But Nick also told Frost that "your comments and what’s coming from the TDC (the comments in the February meeting minutes) would be greatly recognized in that.”
Commissioner Danny Glidewell suggested broadening the review of TDC director salaries beyond neighboring Bay and Okaloosa counties to include other Northwest Florida counties. Nick then suggested that the review be broadened to include all of Florida's beachfront counties, along both the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.
Commissioner Tony Anderson, whose term on the TDC board ended in December, suggested that a review of Tusa's performance be based on a ranking of Tusa's performance in specific areas of his job. Anderson didn't suggest any specific areas, but told his commission colleagues, "I think you need to set up a 1-to-5 (ranking) standard, or a 1-to-10 standard, and not just (say), 'Hey, he’s doing a good job.' ”
Anderson noted that the recent performance of Tusa and the TDC should be judged in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to issue an executive order that shut down short-term vacation rentals — the vast majority of Walton's tourist accommodations — for several weeks during tourist season.
As hard as the pandemic was last year for the county government to address, Anderson said, "It was equally hard on the TDC and their employees to try to keep our name in the forefront (of tourist destinations) ... and we had one of the best summers we’ve ever had."
Anderson, whose commission district includes the vast majority of the county's 26 miles of public and private beaches, said that in his conversations with local restaurant owners who depend heavily on tourists, he learned that "even with COVID, they had great years, and I’d say that’s a credit to Jay and his staff.”
It was unclear Tuesday exactly how or when commissioners will proceed with any review of other TDC executive director salaries or a performance evaluation for Tusa, which would be arranged through the county's human resources department.
Commissioners took no formal vote on Frost's request, but moved on after Nick asked, “No further questions?" and "We all understand that, right?” an apparent reference to the commission's stated desires to conduct the performance evaluation and salary comparison.