Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Business

After pressure from House speaker, Visit Tampa Bay turns over financial details

TAMPA — After a lawsuit threat from House Speaker Richard Corcoran, Visit Tampa Bay released records Wednesday that showed the organization gave out $295,000 in bonuses last year, including $66,000 to its top executive.

The disclosure was the first glimpse into financial information that Visit Tampa Bay has long insisted is private, even though the nonprofit organization's budget is largely paid for with Hillsborough County taxes.

"Lets just get it out there," president and CEO Santiago Corrada told the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday. "There's nothing to hide. We just want to put it to rest."

Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, has promised to slash government spending on tourism marketing and business incentives, infuriating Gov. Rick Scott, who says they are critical to Florida's economy. Those efforts heated up Wednesday as a House committee voted to eliminate Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida, brushing aside concerns raised by businesses and tourism groups.

As part of his push, Corcoran last month requested details on how 13 county governments spend tourist development taxes, which are collected on every dollar spent at hotels, motels and other short-term rental businesses. The information requested included a list of employees and salaries and a breakdown on how much is spent on food and lodging in the name of tourism marketing.

The speaker's office said Hills­borough County's initial submission was incomplete because it did not include enough information about Visit Tampa Bay's spending. Corcoran told the Tampa Bay Times on Friday that he would sue the organization if it refused to turn that information over.

In a letter to Corrada last week, Rep. Mike La Rosa, R-St. Cloud, gave Visit Tampa Bay until Wednesday to comply. The agency met the deadline, sending hundreds of pages to Tallahassee and the media.

Included were 2016 totals for how much Visit Tampa Bay spent on advertising ($4.7 million), how much it pays its lobbyist ($28,000) and how much it spent on travel ($111,518 on 205 sales and marketing trips).

In addition to the $12.5 million it received last year from Hillsborough County, Visit Tampa Bay also generated $2.5 million in private revenue. Its attempts to boost its own budget with fundraising events, however, were not always successful. A golf tournament that cost $59,000 to put on actually lost $300, according to the disclosures.

While Visit Tampa Bay has reported the salaries of its top executives in federal tax filings, the disclosure Wednesday was the first time the agency has provided salary and bonus information for all of its employees. Visit Tampa Bay maintains that information should have remained secret but agreed to provide it anyway.

In all, personnel costs totaled $4.8 million last year.

"We pay quality people to do a quality job," Corrada said.

Corrada made $272,000 in base salary last year, plus the $66,000 bonus. That's up from a total of $164,000 in 2014.

His salary is benchmarked against similar tourism marketing organizations, Corrada said, and his bonus is based on meeting certain accomplishments set by a board of directors.

"If I wasn't doing the job I was doing and I didn't merit that, I wouldn't be doing the job I do today," Corrada said. "I'm expected to be a leader that's an economic engine for the region."

Fred Piccolo, a spokesman for Corcoran, confirmed the speaker's office received Visit Tampa Bay's response, calling the documents "voluminous."

"The House believes in transparency and accountability," Corcoran said in a statement provided by Piccolo. "Today was a victory for both principles. This disclosure is another step in the right direction in cleaning up Tallahassee and reminding those who fancy themselves above the rest that this is the people's House."

If Corcoran is to eliminate government spending on local tourism marketing, he will have to change state law, which has strict rules for how counties can spend tourism development taxes collected from hotels. One of the approved uses is tourism marketing, which defenders say helps draw visitors to the state.

Hillsborough collected $30 million in tourist development taxes during fiscal year 2016.

Taxing visitors to pay for tourism marketing "was the genesis of the tax," Corrada said. "I wasn't around when it was created. I'm just hired to do a service for the county."

Times staff writer Justine Griffin contributed to this report. Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433. Follow @scontorno.

   
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