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Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Pinellas could get OK to levy bigger tourist tax

LARGO — Record levels of tourism could allow the county to levy an additional $6 million in bed taxes next year.

Sales from stays in hotel-room and lodgings in Pinellas County are on pace to exceed $600 million, the state threshold to be classified as a high-tourism impact community. That designation would allow Pinellas to increase its bed tax to 6 percent, a 1 percent hike.

While the tourist tax represents a relatively small amount of money, the steady revenue stream allows local government agencies to sell bonds based on future returns. If bonded over 30 years, the extra $6 million could raise as much as $100 million.

Allowable uses of that money under state law include construction or renovation of publicly owned sports stadiums, beach renourishment and promotion of tourism. The tax would have to be recommended by the county’s Tourism Development Council and then approved by at least five of the seven county commissioners.

Commissioners discussed the proposal at a workshop Tuesday but did not indicate if they support the idea.

But raising the bed tax, levied on overnight hotel stays, will be tempting at a time when groups are already lining up to get a share of the bed taxes that will be freed up after the county makes its final payments on construction bonds for Tropicana Field in 2015, freeing up $6 million in bed taxes.

A number of projects — including the new aquarium proposed for downtown Clearwater, an Olympic-style BMX track in Oldsmar, beach renourishment or maybe even a new Rays stadium — could all be in line for a share of that money.

If county officials proceed, Pinellas would become only the sixth high-tourism impact county in Florida, after Broward, Monroe, Osceola, Orange and Walton. Raising the tax would not be politically difficult, considering 98 percent of it is paid by visitors.

The county is on track to collect roughly $31 million from its current 5-percent tax on hotel and lodging for 2013. More than half of that money is spent on marketing and promoting tourism. The money also goes toward replenishing beaches and repayment of construction loans.

Beginning in 2015, that will include repaying $500,000 per year for five years to pay off construction costs of the Dali Museum.

The TDC, which includes elected officials, representatives from area hotels and leaders from the Pinellas Convention and Visitors Bureau, is likely to discuss adding the extra tax in February, once the county has finished collecting taxes from the previous calendar year.

Projects such as the proposed Clearwater aquarium may have to take a back seat to maintenance of the county’s beaches, considered the lifeblood of its tourism industry.

A survey of TDC members conducted by Research Data Services found that 14 of the 16 members favor spending more bed-tax money on improving the county’s beaches.

Typically county spending on beach nourishment projects is matched with federal or state dollars, but local officials fear the recent federal government cuts will mean less money is available. The recent death of U.S. Rep C.W. “Bill” Young, who was instrumental in securing funding for many local projects, has added to that concern.

“We don’t have Congressman Young up there anymore to fight the good fight,” Commissioner John Morroni said. “This is one place we need to make sure there is money available.”

Half of the Tourism Development Council indicated preliminary support for the bed-tax increase in the survey, although the results are considered “soft” because members said they needed more information.

“We have to know we’re going to use it wisely if we do,” said Russ Kimball, the executive vice president of the Sheraton Sand Key Resort on Clearwater Beach. “I do not feel it will hurt our business.”

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