Tax amendment dominates South Florida Marine Summit

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South Florida’s 10th annual Marine Summit touched on the perennial issues of regulation, work-force training and economic development and business retention, but the thread running through much of yesterday’s summit was Amendment 6.

The afternoon summit at the Palm Beach County Convention Center was both a pep rally and strategy session for winning voter approval Nov. 4 for the amendment, which offers tax relief for Florida’s working waterfront.

“This is important to all Floridians, not just those who enjoy boating,” Sen. Jeff Atwater, a Palm Beach County Republican and president-designate of the Florida Senate, told industry advocates from Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Florida’s Treasure Coast counties. “I am a huge supporter of Amendment 6.”

Amendment 6 would clarify state law and require county tax assessors to value working waterfront — public marinas, boatyards, dry stacks, launch ramps, boatbuilding, commercial fishing and other marine-related facilities — at the properties’ current use instead of at their highest and best use.

Atwater said taxing marinas and boatyards as if they were luxury condominiums because there are expensive condos in the neighborhood makes no sense since traditional waterfront uses don’t garner the big profits that condos do. Marina owners can’t afford to be taxed as if the marina were a condominium.

“Imagine a government that would knowingly tax someone out of their livelihood,” Atwater said. “That’s what we have now in this state.”

Though the measure has the support of Florida’s Chamber of Commerce, tax assessors and many counties and cities, the Orlando Sentinel and Daytona Beach News-Journal both have editorialized against Amendment 6 on grounds that it is a tax exemption for a special group — and this is neither good tax policy nor a good time to be granting exemptions with big shortfalls in the state budget.

But state Rep. Dennis Ross, a Lakeland Republican, said survival of working waterfront and preservation of water access to boating- and fishing-related businesses is vital to Florida’s economy. The recreational marine industry alone has an economic impact of $18 billion, employs 220,000 people, and is a vital part of the infrastructure of the state’s huge tourism industry.

“The marine industry is one of the most vibrant industries in Florida,” he said.

He said the logic of Amendment 6 is the same as that of an existing constitutional amendment that gives a tax break to owners of property that stays in agricultural use. It is taxed as farmland not as a housing development.

“It’s similar to greenbelting,” Ross said.

Ross said arguments for the constitutional amendment are strong, but to pass it must receive a “super-majority” of 60 percent of those who vote. He said the issue has not gotten wide play in the media, so many voters know little about it.

The industry must get the word out to boaters and non-boaters that preserving working waterfronts is good for Florida, he said. The marine industry is undertaking a statewide Save Our Waterfront campaign, which in these economic times is operating on a “shoestring,” said John Sprague, a marina owner and government affairs chairman for the Palm Beach County Marine Industries Association.

Sprague said every marine business in Florida should be sending letters out to employees and customers, and getting the word out to their friends and neighbors, to vote for Amendment 6. If the marinas disappear, “who’s going to replace the dollars to do what we do?” he asked. “Government.” Taxpayers will have to pony up to develop municipal marinas.

The Marine Industries Association of South Florida, Miami’s The Marine Council, the Marine Industries Association of Palm Beach County and Marine Industries Association of the Treasure Coast hosted the summit.

Look for a complete report on the Marine Summit in the November issue of Trade Only.

— Jim Flannery

Senior Writer

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