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Charlie Green
Charlie Green
Tamara Pigott

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Promoting clean water and beaches protects the area’s tourism-based economy:

That’s why retaining water-quality consultants and lobbyists is crucial, Lee County officials said, as they testified Friday in favor of tapping the tourist development tax for that purpose.

The county’s Clerk of the Court office has no beef with the lobbyists, but thinks it could be illegal to pay them with bed tax money.

On Friday, the dispute-turned-lawsuit went to trial. After hearing testimony, Circuit Judge Frederick Hardt gave attorneys from both sides 30 days to submit their closing arguments in writing.

Among the witnesses: Retired Clerk of the Court Charlie Green; Tamara Pigott, executive director for Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau; and lobbyist-and-consultant John Fumero of West Palm Beach.

“I frequently say that Miami has the nightlife, Orlando has the Mouse, but we have Mother Nature,” Pigott said, alluding to the role healthy water resources play in the county’s tourism and hospitality industry.

Visitor bureau research shows the industry in Lee County alone employs more than 52,000 people, and plows about $2.7 billion-a-year into the economy each year.

Said Fumero: “Tourism in Lee County is based on three primary factors: water, water, water.”

Fumero is an attorney and former general counsel for the South Florida Water Management District. He and Washington, D.C.-based Van Scoyoc Associates provide consulting and lobbying services to the county’s Tourist Development Council on water quality issues. They are paid $1,600 and $8,300 a month respectively to do this.

The Tourist Development Council advises county commissioners on spending of the 5 percent bed tax charged on short-term lodging rentals, and which is used to promote the area to visitors.

Green, who has since retired, prompted the suit by refusing to pay the lobbyists with bed tax dollars starting in August 2011. They currently are paid through the property tax-supported county general fund.

At the heart of the matter is whether the state statute allowing for a local option to levy the bed tax is broad enough to include covering expenses for lobbying in addition to tourism-related advertising and marketing and other, allied purposes.

Green, who is named as defendant in the suit because of his former title, maintains he holds no animosity toward county government or its lobbyist-consultants. Said Green: “I wouldn’t have brought (the issue) up if I didn’t think it should be paid for by another fund.”

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