TREASURE ISLAND — The good news is the $12 million originally set aside to restore two eroded beaches will cover four in Treasure Island and St. Pete Beach next summer.
But with the absence of Pinellas County's biggest legislative champion, U.S. Rep. CW “Bill” Young, and tightening federal budgets, Pinellas County leaders say more local funds may need to be stowed away in the future to protect the area's greatest tourism asset: wide, sandy beaches.
The county devotes about $3 million a year from bed tax dollars for beach maintenance, including expensive renourishment projects that have become necessary every few years to build up diminished sections of shoreline.
With the likely prospect of raising the tourist development tax on overnight hotel stays by 1 percent, county leaders will have more funds at their disposal in the to rebuild beaches and support other tourism-related ventures.
The trouble is county and state funds typically make up a combined 40 percent of the multimillion-dollar renourishment projects; the bulk of the money comes from the feds.
Pinellas County Commission Chair Ken Welch says that's a big reason an overwhelming majority of commissioners in a recent poll opted to prioritize spending on beaches above aquariums, bike courses and a host of other big proposals meant to draw visitors.
“The beaches really are our No. 1 asset for tourism in Pinellas County,” said Welch, who also chairs the county's Tourist Development Council.
This year, at least, the federal government appears to agree with that assessment.
In the wake of Tropical Storm Debby and Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the federal government approved $145 million in Florida alone this year that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is applying to 22 projects, including 14 beach restorations.
During normal years, there's only a fraction of that money available. Before the storms, for example, only two projects were scheduled for 2013, said Susan Jackson, a spokeswoman for the Corps' state office in Jacksonville.
Treasure Island's Sunset and Sunshine beaches were at the top of Pinellas' list and were originally scheduled for the fall at a cost of $12 million, including $4 million in county and state funds and $8 million in federal dollars.
But with most dredging contractors tied up in other places, county officials found they could negotiate a lower price to have the work done in the summer and even add two beaches: Upham and Pass-a-Grille beaches in St. Pete Beach, county Coastal Manager Andy Squires said.
Under normal conditions, these beaches require an import of sand every three to four years, as tidal currents wash away at narrower sections.
Congress has authorized federal funding until 2030 for Long Key and 2043 for Sand Key. So, if the money is available, they're eligible to continue getting support.
Treasure Island's expires in 2019, though, and no process has yet been identified to renew that authorization, Squires said.
“There's some indication at the congressional level that they're questioning whether to continue some of these reauthorizations in support of beach renourishment,” Squires said.
Losing the longest-serving Republican in Congress, who pushed for beach funds in Pinellas, adds to that uncertainty.
“We're one of the lucky ones that have had a lot of federal support, thanks to Congressman Young, particularly,” Squires said.
Pinellas has also been more fortunate than beach communities on the Atlantic Coast in having an abundance of sand that typically accumulates in places such as Egmont Shoal and John's Pass.
Beaches in Miami that continually shrink don't have such a ready supply, and local governments have attempted to negotiate with neighboring counties to import offshore sand.
Pinellas County could raise its tax on overnight hotel stays from 5 to 6 percent if it passes a state threshold of $600 million that would give it a designation as a high-impact tourism community — something local tourism leaders expect will happen.
The county collected more than $31 million in bed tax revenue during the 2013 fiscal year that ended in September, setting a new record.
The Tourist Development Council will develop guidelines over the next year for ranking funding requests, likely prioritizing reserves for beach restoration, Welch said.