Tuesday, September 18, 2018
Politics

Palm Beach County considers special tax for Trump's Mar-a-Lago visits

WEST PALM BEACH — Commissioners in Palm Beach County are so tired of spending money on President Donald Trump's frequent visits to his Mar-a-Lago resort that some are suggesting a special tax be levied against the property if the federal government doesn't reimburse its costs.

Palm Beach County spends more than $60,000 a day when the president visits, mostly for law enforcement overtime — almost $2 million since January. Sheriff Ric Bradshaw estimated the county would spend $250,000 during Trump's recent meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the president's sixth trip to his Winter White House in the 12 weeks since his inauguration.

County Commissioner Dave Kerner has suggested turning Mar-a-Lago into a special taxing district and imposing a levy on the resort to pay the president's security costs. Because Mar-a-Lago is incorporated as a club, it pays lower property taxes than hotels. It also gets a tax break because Trump surrendered development rights after he purchased the property from the estate of cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post for $10 million in 1985.

The 500 members pay $14,000 annually in dues. The initiation fee was recently doubled to $200,000. Forbes Magazine estimates the club is now worth $150 million.

"We're very honored to have the president here, but at the same time, his travel here is such high frequency he's not visiting Palm Beach County — he's governing from it," Kerner told Money magazine recently. "Whatever our priorities are, the taxpayers didn't pay this money to us to protect the president."

The sheriff believes the federal government will eventually reimburse the county, but can't be certain.

"I had a personal conversation with the president in February and he understands," Bradshaw said. "There is a system in place and, unfortunately, that involves Congress … and that is not an easy thing to navigate through. I am sure they will get around to it."

Local governments aren't the only ones complaining. No solution has been found for the 28 business owners at Lantana Airport, a small field for propeller planes about 6 miles from Mar-a-Lago. The Secret Service shutters it every time Trump visits Mar-a-Lago because agents believe the 350 flights it handles daily pose a security risk.

Marian Smith, who owns a flight school, says she has lost almost $100,000 because of the closures. A banner-towing company that operates from the airport says it has lost over $40,000 in contracts.

Jonathan Miller, the contractor who operates the county-owned airport, said this week that he believes a compromise will be worked out with the Secret Service, the Federal Aviation Administration and other agencies that would allow the airport to operate with restrictions during presidential visits.

"The FAA has a strong incentive to work with us and help get some funding that will put a system in place that will appease the Secret Service," Miller said.

The cost of Trump's visits divides local residents, with the schism often falling along political lines. Trump's supporters say any money spent by the county is recouped through added visitors lured by the frequent exposure and his visits show he cares about the area.

"The fact that he comes down here, the fact he is involved in the community to this extent even though he is the president, I think that's great," said Julian Detwiler, who operates produce stands at local farmers markets. "There are costs associated with everything. It doesn't cost the country or the community more for him to (visit) than lots of other things we do. It keeps the economy going."

The president's critics say the visits illustrate his hypocrisy as he frequently slammed President Barack Obama's trips, even though they were less frequent and didn't burden any single community.

"Trump is costing this area so much money, a hell of a lot of money, and he doesn't seem to give a damn," said Bob Brink, a novelist and retired local journalist.

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