Burden of the Snowbirds

Seasonal residents bring headaches with them

Ed Gifford moved to Naples a little over a year ago, but he has already learned how to identify the signs of the yearly invasion.

In front of him in line at Walgreens recently were three couples no younger than 60. He’s noticed the nicer cars on Naples streets lately, the Jaguars, Mercedes, and Lexuses and he’s not happy about it. For the 30-year-old science teacher who commutes between local schools to give special presentations, it all means more time spent waiting.

“My 20 minute commute has turned into an hour every morning,” Gifford said. “It’s only 15 miles but I have to leave my house a lot earlier than during the summer to get to work on time.”

With no late season hurricane to stave off the annual migration of snowbirds to their Southwest Florida winter homes, season is already well under way. Southwest Florida is one of the most popular destinations for snowbirds in the United States. Florida has welcomed the seasonal migrants for years. While they enjoy the beautiful, temperate winters, the area reaps the benefits of a larger tax base and the boost to the economy for five months every year.

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Yet, even the cash snowbirds fly down with isn’t enough to convince everybody that they are a boon and not a burden. The arrival of the snowbirds also signals the beginning of a season of hassles and inconveniences for Florida’s permanent residents who ride out the oppressively hot summer months. Snowbirds boost the population, and subsequently place an added strain on government services, while adding to traffic problems and creating more competition (and longer lines) for everything from movies and tee times to doctor’s visits.

“I used to have a store closer to downtown Naples,” taxidermist Bucky Flowers said in his office surrounded by mounted fish and animals from all over the world. “But the snowbirds would come in and look around, pointing and asking questions about the exotic African animals. They would nine times out of ten just waste my time and never buy anything, so I moved away from the commercial district because who needs the trouble.”

While the snowbirds are part of what make south Florida what it is, and the benefits of their seasonal stay have been adequately espoused time and time again, what about the burden they place on permanent residents? While they wait out the summer for the moment when the temperature and humidity break, signaling a return to being able to walk outside at 1 p.m. and not melt into the asphalt, the snowbirds have the luxury of more free time to take advantage of the area’s attractions, seemingly always in the way whether it’s on the roads, in the waiting rooms or in the check out lines.

While in recent years studies show a dip in the number of snowbirds visiting Florida each winter, some indicators are pointing to a fast approaching jump in the number of seasonal migrants we see each year.

Snowbirdius Floridicus

Since the early 1900s when railroad tracks were laid from Jacksonville to Key West, providing easy access for visitors, Florida has tried to attract seasonal residents. Various wealthy Americans became part-time residents, including Thomas Edison, who built what is now Edison Estates. After World War II, more middle-income people started to buy winter homes in Florida. Then, in 1965, Social Security benefits were tied to inflation and Medicare health benefits were added, boosting the income and financial security of many retirees. Florida became the United States’ favorite retirement home.

A 2004 study performed by the University of Florida Bureau of Economic and Business Research found there were 920,000 temporary residents in Florida, a small decline from the 970,000 wintering here in 1997. The number one destination of the snowbirds is Lee County, while Collier County falls at number four on the list, receiving 8.2 percent and 5.2 percent of the influx respectively. In 2000, Collier County’s population jumped from 251,377 to 350,751 during peak season.

The typical snowbird, according to the study, is white, over 55 years of age, retired or unemployed, wealthier than an average permanent resident, and spends five months in the Sunshine State.

Economists and economic development offices attribute the drop in snowbirds from 1997 to the low birthrates during the 1930s in the United States. But the first baby boomers are turning 60 right now, and are expected to retire at the rate of 11,000 per day for the next 18 years. As long as Florida stays a prime retirement destination, the number of snowbirds should only go up in the coming years.

Although there are no numbers available estimating the economic impact of the snowbirds, it is obviously substantial. If it is assumed that only half of all snowbirds stay at least five months here, and spend $60 a day – a figure used by Canadian studies of snowbird spending – annual spending by Florida snowbirds easily surpasses $4 billion. In addition to their spending, temporary residents also pay more in property taxes due to the 1995 Save Our Homes Act that protects permanent residents from exorbitant rates, but not the snowbirds.

Yet, as the baby boomers get set to retire, the yearly exodus down south will continue to skew area demographics, and increase traffic, waste, and wait times across Southwest Florida.

Waiting, but not to enter the pearly gates

Florida has been called heaven’s waiting room for its large number of retirees. But the snowbirds arrival during season means everybody in Southwest Florida is doing a lot more waiting than normal.

Simple activities like going out to eat, playing a round of golf, or going to a movie during season require a lot more planning than during the summer months.

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“On a Friday or Saturday during the summer you may have a wait of 30 or 45 minutes,” said Outback Steakhouse kitchen manager Chad Fritsch. “During season, the wait on a weekend can get up to three hours.”

Local residents complain that once the weather turns nice and they are motivated to do things, the snowbirds have already arrived and make going to the beach or getting in a round of 18 holes a stressful ordeal.

“The snowbirds don’t work so they have a lot more time on their hands,” said Bonita Springs resident and golf enthusiast Wesley Clark. “As soon as the heat breaks and you won’t die from dehydration on the links, the snowbirds are all over the place making it impossible to get a tee time.”

Lines for everything from movies to drug stores between November and April seem to be interminably long. While area businesses owners greet the snowbirds and their cash with open arms, those who work in customer service could fill books with their tales of quirky snowbird behavior.

“I remember this one time last year a snowbird from Michigan came in and wanted to return about five shrimp because they were spoiled,” said Clarissa Price, who works at a Fort Myers grocery store. “The thing is when I looked at the receipt I saw he had bought about two pounds. When I asked what he did with the other shrimp he said, ‘well we had to eat something,’ but he wanted a full refund.”

More trash, more traffic, more waiting

With thousands of snowbirds landing in Lee and Collier Counties every fall, local services have to step up their operations in order to manage the increased demand.

As is to be expected, the annual influx of snowbirds brings more traffic to Florida, and thus more accidents. The Collier County Sheriff’s Office reported 4,679 accidents from November to April 2005 and 3,730 accidents from May to October. The lowest accident total for a month was June with 429. The Florida Highway Patrol reports similar jumps in accidents throughout the state during season with a 2005 monthly low of 21,354 in September and high of 24,715 in March.

“The fact is any time you have more cars on the road you are going to have more accidents,” said Lieutenant Doug Dodson of the Florida Highway Patrol. “Most traffic fatalities though are caused by the use of drugs and alcohol, which is seen in much higher rates from younger drivers. Older drivers are not unsafe, they may have slower reflexes but they don’t typically drive as fast.”

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Whether the age-old complaint that “old people can’t drive” is true or not, the perception nonetheless weighs on the psyche of Florida’s younger permanent residents.

“I was riding my bike just last week and an old man with a Quebec license plate rolled out into the street on a red light and clipped my back tire,” Hillary Campbell, 27, said while shaking her head in disbelief. “He didn’t even look in my direction. I fell off my bike into the intersection. The worse thing about it was he didn’t even care. My bike was useless because my tire was bent and then he complained that I scuffed his bumper.”

The fact that 64 percent of the snowbirds are over 55, according to the UF study, also places a strain on medical services.

“I swear the snowbirds all wait until they come down here to go to the doctor,” said Fort Myers resident James Wainwright. “I always have a hard time getting an appointment for any kind of specialist during season.”

It’s hard to track wait times at hospitals due to the triage system, giving precedence to more serious emergencies. But, like Wainwright, numerous area residents complained of increased wait times at area hospitals.

“During the winter months my work load at least doubles,” said Fort Myers radiologist Chris Verlander,

It’s not just hospitals that get an increased workload, medical examiners do too.

“More deaths means more work, and any time you have a large increase in population, especially one skewed toward the older generation, you are going to have more deaths,” said Lee County Deputy Chief medical examiner Robert Pfalzgraf. “The biggest thing during season is the snowbirds that come down here and have a physician in their northern home. If they die here, then their physician can’t sign a death certificate in Florida, so they have to come into the medical examiner’s office to get a death certificate at the tax payers’ expense.”

In Collier County the Medical Examiner’s office reported 638 cases during season from 2003 to 2005 as opposed to 566 for off-season over the same period.

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The snowbirds also add to the landfills, along with traffic and waiting lines in Southwest Florida.

Collier County contracts out their solid waste and recycling collection services to Waste Management Inc. of Florida (WMIF) in District I, which includes the majority of the collection areas in the county. During season, WMIF sees a 24 percent increase in volume in recycling collection. This year, in anticipation of season, WMIF added five collection routes, six collection trucks, and hired new employees to handle the increased seasonal load.

Turning the Tables

The snowbirds make a lot of things possible in Southwest Florida, including greater infrastructure, a bigger arts scene, and more restaurants and amenities that would otherwise flounder without the seasonal boost in visitors. However, their sheer numbers, and wealth of free time place a strain on permanent residents and local services. Every October, just as the discombobulating heat begins to abate, as those who suffered through the hot, sticky, bug infested summer months finally can enjoy their hometown, the Snowbirdius Floridicus arrives.

Though, the year-round residents can take comfort in one number the University of Florida study reported. Around 1.5 million Florida residents spent at least 30 consecutive days away from home in 2003. So, after a century of northern snowbirds making their winter nests in Florida, the Sunshine State’s retirees are returning the favor by heading north for summer.

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