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Pinellas Commissioners opt for flexibility on bed tax spending

CLEARWATER — Pinellas County commissioners set a goal Tuesday to spend the lion's share of next year's tourist tax dollars on advertising rather than building projects.

But they stopped short of making it an absolute rule.

Commissioners voted unanimously to make it their "intent" to spend 60 percent of the projected $42 million in taxes from hotel rooms and short-term rentals on promoting the county's amenities.

It is their plan to divvy up the remaining 40 percent on a slew of capital projects in the pipeline — potential requests from cities for sports stadiums and other attractions.

But the County Commission decided against making that split an absolute rule, as recommended by the Tourist Development Council earlier this year.

The wording, decided after more than two hours of discussion, gives the county the ability to adjust spending should a disaster such as a hurricane or national crisis affect tourism.

"It becomes more of an aspiration as opposed to a prescriptive" rule set in stone, Pinellas County Administrator Mark Woodard said.

The spending plan follows a vote in August to increase the tax on hotel rooms and other short term rentals from 5 percent to 6 percent. The state allows counties that bring in more than $30 million in annual revenue to increase the tax to 6 cents.

Pinellas hit that mark in 2013, but waited until this year to vote on raising the tax, which takes effect Jan. 1.

On Tuesday, Anthony Satterfield, vice president of operations for Alden Suites Beach Resort, implored the commission to dedicate at least 60 percent to advertising efforts so tourism agency Visit St. Pete-Clearwater can continue to lure visitors by advertising the area's amenities worldwide.

"If there is not a cap on this, you wake up one day and you don't have the money to advertise because it's all gone to all these wonderful projects that everybody needed," Satterfield said.

Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos said although advertising is vital, the county must maintain spending flexibility to be able to pay for a litany of projects in the pipeline that could take advantage of these resort tax dollars.

St. Petersburg Rick Kriseman also spoke against a 40 percent cap for capital projects.

In the past, Kriseman has said his city might seek money to renovate Al Lang Stadium and build an 1,800-seat baseball park at Walter Fuller Field. Dunedin Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski, who also favors the higher cap, has said her city could ask for as much as $50 million to help pay for a stadium and training center for the Toronto Blue Jays. And the Clearwater Marine Aquarium is expected to seek money to renovate its current site after scuttling plans for a new facility.

"We support you, we support the TDC, but we also challenge you to remember that spring training is also very important," Cretekos said. "These tourists that come here, they come because of the beaches and the great job our staff does, but if they don't have something to do, they don't go to the hoteliers and say where can I go?"

David Downing, executive director of Visit St. Pete-Clearwater, said he was satisfied with the commission's "aspirational" vote for the 60/40 split.

"I'm very pleased that we are at this place," he said. "There are a thousand ways to skin this cat. I'd like to get back to the business of promoting Pinellas County."

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

Pinellas Commissioners opt for flexibility on bed tax spending 11/24/15 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 24, 2015 11:11pm]
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