For the second straight year, Okaloosa County had a proposal tabled to increase annual fees for beach vendors, once again citing lack of appropriate data to make the decision.
FORT WALTON BEACH — Maggie Halsey carries a unique piece of Okaloosa County business history with her — she's the owner of the very first "Qualified Beach Vendor" permit.
"I'm actually 'Qualified Beach Vendor No. 1,' " said Halsey, who has run Barefoot Weddings for over two decades. "But there's been plenty of change since that happened."
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Halsey and others who have businesses that rely heavily on Okaloosa Island's beaches recently avoided a change that would have greatly impacted all of their bottom lines.
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For the second year in a row, Okaloosa County commissioners tabled a proposal that would've increased the annual fee for beach vendors from $500 to $2,000. Vendors like Halsey also pay $50 per wedding they host on the beach.
In an e-mail to his constituents about the Jan. 21 meeting, Okaloosa County District 3 Commissioner Nathan Boyles wrote that: "Without supporting data, the proposed ordinance was entirely knee-jerk and bound to cause more problems than it fixes."
Part of the frustration on the part of vendors, like Halsey, was that after the same issue came up in 2019, Okaloosa County promised to gather specific data about beach vendors — specifically the variance between industries and usage — but that data was never collected and the proposed increase showed up again in 2020.
"We attempted this effort in spring (of 2019), where we told staff to go out in the summer and get data to find out what, if any, regulatory changes we needed to make," Boyles said. "But they didn't get the data and proposed the increase anyway, so we need to take this summer and collect the data we should've got last year.
"We authorized our tourism and development department to bring on seasonal help — 'Beach Ambassadors' — that could serve in a dual function and collect that data, but they didn't receive sufficient, qualified candidates."
The issue of the proposed ordinance has been moved to February, but Boyles said he hopes the issue will ultimately be delayed until the winter and in February, commissioners can instead approve the staff proposal to collect the requested data — an effort that was hamstrung last year in part because the proposal for collecting data wasn't brought up until the spring. The data wouldn't just be about weddings — it also applies to beach chair and umbrella services.
"I think if the new fee was applied in a flat fashion, it definitely would've been an undue burden to some (vendors)," Boyles said. "One vendor might do five weddings and another might do 500, so that one-size-fits-all model wouldn't work because there is a disproportionate amount of business being done by different vendors."
Halsey was an early proponent of beach vendor permits and regulation, with e-mails and letters to Okaloosa County officials about the issue dating back to 2002.
"One big issue for me has been if (Okaloosa County) is going to require permits, that's fine, but there's nobody around to enforce it," said Halsey, who has put together approximately 4,000 wedding ceremonies in 20 years of business. "Years ago, there was a park ranger making rounds but since he retired, there's been no one. In all the years I've had my permit, I've only physically been asked to show my permit one time, in 2007."
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