BY LIZA STROUT - If the attitude of voters in November compares to the voices heard at the last Gasparilla Island Bridge Authority meeting, Boca Grande shopkeepers are in for troubling economic times. At the bridge authority’s April 25 meeting, many residents said they opposed a tax referendum that would help to pay for the new bridge project ... and that leaves tolls to cover the economic punch.
Now, the question is simply how much it will go up, and how much visitors to the island will be willing to pay to get to the local shops, restaurants and beaches.
Jennifer Burch, an island resident and owner of Ariel, Ltl. Ariel and Palm on Park, mirrored the defeated attitude of many .
“Bridge tolls are part of payroll on this island,” she said. “We don’t have a choice about paying it. I have three businesses, so I’m going to get hit three times. We will have to accept whatever is decided, even though that means paying more for tolls. I am also an island property owner, so I wouldn’t be immune to a tax increase. Either way, I am going to pay.”
Capt. Sandy Melvin, who owns Gasparilla Outfitters, thinks that costs should be shared.
“The community needs to find balance to handle the bridge-replacement and maintenance expenses,” he said. “We understand tolls will rise, but as business owners we feel overwhelmed in this economy. I think it would be fair for property owners who benefit from the toll to shoulder some of the burden with the very modest tax increase proposed.”
Doug Bragg of Sadie Green’s Small Pleasures also expressed the opinion that business owners will be the ones to pay if the tax is voted down.
“It’s not the people who come here once or twice a year to spend the day at the beach or people who come here for a week on vacation who are going to be paying for this,” he said. “It will be the business owners and the people who work on the island.”
Brenda Lee Combrink of the Antique Boutique does not think that it should even be a question for the business owners and their employees.
“The people who live and work on the island should be the only ones who can get a discount card,” she said. “Everyone else should pay full price to cover the cost of construction. We’re pretty insulated here in the store, since we live on the island and run the business ourselves, but the people who have employees who come across that bridge every day, it really adds up for them.”
Bob Melvin, who owns both an island business and several island properties, said he doesn’t understand the attitude of some of the residents at the meeting.
“My opinion is that island voters will do the right thing and approve the modest tax increase,” he said. “It would be a vote of confidence in island businesses and workers. Based on my knowledge, it is a simple equation – the new bridges are going to be built, and they are going to have to be paid for. They will last 75 years and benefit all of us.”
He continued. “As I understand it, I believe a few hundred dollar per year tax on an owner’s property value would be a good investment for the property owner. At the end of the day, this is America and one can vote any way they choose, I would just like to think that our community will prefer to support businesses and workers in the scheme of things. I believe that it would put a much greater strain on our businesses and workers not to approve this tax increase. It seems to me that the best answer is to vote ‘yes’ for the tax. I hope the voters see it that way, too.”
Paula Beecher, co-owner of Sisters Restaurant, expects that her business will have to absorb the cost of the new bridge toll - to a point.
“If the tolls go too high, we would have to consider moving to another location,” she said. “We pay the entire toll for all of our employees, and we have around 15 in season, so it adds up. If we owned the building, maybe we could close during the summer and save money that way, but we rent and that cost stays the same no matter what.”
She went on, “The people who work out here love the island, even if they don’t happen to be residents. It would be sad to see the small business owners squeezed out if costs get too high.”
Phyllis Hendricks of Hudson’s Grocery believes that the cost will spread beyond the brick and mortar businesses downtown.
“The increased costs will be hard on owners,” she said. “Most pay some or all of the tolls for their employees as part of the cost of doing business out here.”
Hendricks continued, “There will be other costs, though. Every delivery that is made out here, there is a charge. That is passed on to the merchants. It’s one more thing that will cost more.”
Hendricks believes that everyone who benefits from the bridge should share in the cost of replacing and maintaining it.
“It shouldn’t all be on the shoulders of the business owners, which is where it will go if the tax is rejected,” she said. “And it won’t just be the stores downtown. It will be the landscapers and lawn people, the people who work on construction. They will be paying for the increase, too. And those costs will have to be passed on.”
Approximately one-half of the 1,435 courtesy poll cards sent out to eligible voters on the island were returned. Voters were given three choices: To vote for a .30 mil tax, a .55 mil tax, or no tax at all. Around 52% of voters were against any tax, 48% for a tax.
However, at the April 25 meeting, of the approximately 60 residents present (not all voting residents), only two raised their hands in support of a tax referendum.
Because there was some interest in a tax, according to the poll, the bridge board voted to put the .30 mil ad valorem tax on the ballot in November.
Only registered Lee County voters can vote on the referendum. In order to vote in the November 2012 election, you must be registered to vote by Oct. 9, 2012. Early voting begins ten days before the election.
Absentee ballots can be requested from the Lee County Supervisor of Elections by phone, (239) 533-8683, or online at www.leeelections.com.
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