Tourism officials fighting expansion of bed tax recipients
CLEARWATER - Professional sports stadiums already get a big cut. Museums and aquariums are increasingly asking for a piece of the pie. Now there’s an amendment to the tourist development tax under consideration in the Florida Legislature that would allow some local governments to use that revenue to pay for lifeguards. That’s pushed hoteliers and tourism officials in Pinellas County and across the state to draw a line in the sand. The Florida hotel industry volunteered to impose an additional tax on their overnight guests to pay for their destination to get good marketing, not for public services, they say.While the amendment that passed the state Senate Friday would apply only to counties with fewer than 250,000 people – much smaller than Pinellas – hoteliers say it opens the door to local governments requesting bed tax money for all manner of budget items. Beachfront communities here don’t have any immediate plans to ask for a cut of that money, though some city officials say using the tax to pay for services critical to tourists is only fair. “Our industry has, for the most part, been united in opposing the expansion of the use of these tax dollars that were meant for marketing and marketing only,” said Gregg Niklaus, president of the Sirata Beach Resort and Conference Center in St. Pete Beach. “Now the Pandora’s Box opens to every conceivable use.” The original goal of establishing the statewide tourist development tax was to allow county governments to market their attractions through visitor’s bureaus and direct advertising. The law also allows for large capital projects aimed at bringing more visitors and a higher profile to destinations around the state. Professional sports stadiums, such as Tropicana Field, museums, zoos and aquariums fall under that umbrella. An amendment, introduced this session by Pinellas County state Sen. Jack Latvala, would expand the types of aquariums eligible for bed tax money. Pinellas County devoted more than half of its $28-million in tourist tax revenue last year to its visitor’s bureau, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, and its marketing efforts, while 19 percent went to servicing debt on Tropicana Field and other facilities. The county levies a 5-percent tax on short-term stays. An argument can be made that sports stadiums or aquariums attract new visitors and boost tourism, said Robert Skrob, executive director of the Florida Association of Destination Marketing Organizations. Other uses proposed over the years certainly don’t, like a 2008 bill that sought to subsidize affordable housing in Key West for tourism workers and the pending amendment for lifeguards, he said. “Very few industries have a tax on them, so taxing the hotels is almost like taxing new car dealers and saying the money is going to go toward building new roads,” said Skrob. Officials at the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce are urging members to lobby their state representatives as the amendment moves to the House this week. Chamber director Robin Sollie says she seeks to educate businesses, city officials and residents about the tax, explaining that it’s not an additional pot of revenue for local governments. “Tourism is the No. 1 industry, and therefore we need to continue to market the destination as a state and county by county,” she said. On the other hand, it’s easy to see why a small waterfront community such as Madeira Beach might be tempted by the prospect of a new revenue stream, especially in an era where local governments have a smaller pot of money to pay for basic services that are essential to a tourism-based economy. The city hasn’t discussed seeking bed tax money, but City Manager Shane Crawford thinks it’s a legitimate revenue source for places that support large numbers of tourists. “If these are services that we’re going to be forced to provide to attract tourist dollars to our cities, we need to offer those services and fund them in some fashion, so that just makes sense,” he said. That sentiment isn’t universally shared up and down the beach. Treasure Island funds critical services such as beach cleanup and sand raking through parking meter fees. The current law gives county governments discretion to use bed tax revenue for beach maintenance, and 9 percent last year was used for beach renourishment. Nevertheless, Treasure Island Commissioner Alan Bildz says he doesn’t think that revenue should be opened up for further public services, even if cities are struggling to pay for them. “Once you open the floodgates, then everybody has got their hands out,” he said.