Hotel opposes bed tax hike
ST. LEO - Pasco County's largest hotel came out against a move to raise the county's bed tax rate Tuesday during a workshop with the Pasco County Board of Commissioners. Greg Riehle, vice president of Saddlebrook Resort, said doubling the bed tax from its current 2 percent rate to 4 percent would come directly from his company's bottom line — and its employees. With 800 rooms, Saddlebrook represents about a third of all the hotel rooms in the county. Riehle and other members of Pasco's Tourist Development Council warned commissioners against raising the bed tax rate. "It concerns me that we have all these plans being put together, and it's not something the industry has ever been consulted about," he said. "Our part of the county is against it — until we can have something that's tangible we can point to say that's what we did with the money we collected for the first 20 years."The county has $11.8 million sitting in its tourism tax account but has failed to strike a deal for a tennis stadium or a sports complex to lure out-of-town athletes to the area. Riehle said he's hopeful the county will be able to close the deal for a sports complex at Wiregrass Ranch, but he isn't holding his breath. County purchasing officials are evaluating bids for the $14 million project, and the legal department still hasn't closed on the land deal for the park. "You don't even know if you're going to get a deal done at Wiregrass," Riehle said. "Yes, you have a land donation that may or may not close in a few weeks. We had land donated last time for a tennis stadium and it didn't happen." Commissioner Henry Wilson chided Riehle for having a negative attitude. "One person's negativity is another's realism," Riehle said. Wilson said hotel operators in west Pasco support raising the bed tax. "The question boils down to can we be a premier county at 2 percent? I don't think we can," he said. But other members of the Tourist Development Council agreed with Riehle. New Port Richey City Councilwoman Judy DeBella-Thomas said, "I would feel more comfortable discussing this after we see what happens with Wiregrass." Paradise Lakes manager Toby Caroline said her guests wouldn't even notice the higher tax. "Not one of them has ever questioned the bed tax," she said. Last year, bed tax collections amounted to $822,206, a 19 percent increase over 2011 revenue and second only to the pre-recession fiscal year 2008. But Tourism Director Eric Keaton said Pasco still lags other Florida counties in tourism spending. Keaton said an increase in tourist tax dollars would allow the county to raise its marketing budget in two key growth areas: film and international tourism. He also wants to hire a sports event coordinator to oversee the tournaments, mud runs and other events the county co-sponsors. "We need someone to manage these events and manage those contracts to make sure they comply with terms," Keaton said, noting that he and his assistant are already spread thin. "These two people can not be at every event every Saturday." Commissioner Kathryn Starkey said after listening to Keaton's presentation, she was more inclined to support raising the tax. "If we don't invest in ourselves, who's going to do it?" she asked. "I think we need to give our people the tools they need to promote the county."
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