Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Business

Efforts to raise Pasco County's tourism tax wither — for now

ST. LEO — A month ago, Eric Keaton raised his hands in the universal sign for "touchdown" when a majority of county commissioners said they'd discuss increasing the county's tourism tax, the lowest levy in the region.

On Tuesday, Keaton, the county's tourism director, left a workshop with little hope the 2 percent tax rate would change, at least not now.

Members of the county's Tourist Development Council expressed discomfort with an increase at this time, instead preferring to see what happens with the proposed multifield sports complex that would be built in Wesley Chapel on land donated by the Porter family.

The county would build the complex using $14 million in tourist tax revenue, collected from people who stay in hotels and other short-term lodgings. Seven companies submitted bids to design the project, while two placed bids to manage and operate it. Among those two was Wiregrass Sports LLC, a company formed by the Porters when they originally offered to manage the park but withdrew after the county asked for 7 percent of the park's gross profits.

Purchasing director Scott Stromer said he hopes to have a recommendation on the firms for the March 5 County Commission meeting.

During the workshop, held Tuesday to educate tourism and elected officials and gauge support for a tourist tax increase, Keaton presented a list of things he said are needed to make Pasco competitive in the luring events, including a part-time employee to promote Pasco in the film industry, a sports manager and the services of an advertising agency to manage advertising in print, social media, websites and email. He also expressed the need for upgrading technology so that tourists could get information electronically from kiosks and on mobile devices.

"It's a very competitive market," Keaton said. The total price tag, if everything were adopted, was $22 million.

"This is a wish list," Chief Assistant County Administrator Michele Baker said.

By law, the most the county could increase the tax by is 3 percent, to a total surcharge of 5 percent for hotel or other short-term stays. It would take at least a 4-1 vote of county commissioners to increase the tax.

Budget director Chris Dorsey said the existing 2 percent tax is expected to raise $824,493 during the next fiscal year, while 3 percent would raise an estimated $1.2 million. Four percent would bring in $1.6 million, while 5 percent would garner slightly more than $2 million.

Pasco's hotel tax levy is the lowest in the region. Hernando and Citrus counties both charge 3 percent. Hillsborough and Pinellas are each at 5 percent, though their taxes help pay for major sports stadiums such as Tropicana Field and Raymond James Stadium.

But tourism council members expressed reluctance to increase the tax now.

"It's not a free lunch," said Greg Riehle of Saddlebrook Resorts, which has historically opposed any increase. "It's supposed to help us, and it's not helping us."

He said the resort, which brings in the most tourist tax dollars of any other attraction, has to bid on conventions and a higher tourism rate makes it less competitive.

"It's a real cost that we at Saddlebrook have to indirectly pay for," he said.

Riehle also expressed skepticism that the deal with the Porters would go through. Even if it does, he said, youth sports generate limited visits because kids are in school.

New Port Richey Council member and TDC member Judy DeBella Thomas sided with Riehle.

"I think we might see a drop in rentals," she said. "I think we might be cutting off our nose to spite our face."

But TDC member Toby Caroline of Paradise Lakes nudist resort said those she meets during promotions don't care about the room tax.

"Not one of them has ever questioned the sales tax," she said. "We have been booked solid, and we can't even find a room for people coming into the resorts."

County Commissioner Jack Mariano said he favors the status quo for now but wants to see how things work out. He said in the past that he would be open to a tax increase if the allocations are changed to spend more money on local facilities.

"Let's stay with the 2 percent, see what they do with it and next year come back and revisit this," he said.

The opposition drew sharp criticism from Commissioner Henry Wilson, who first called for the increase and joined Commissioner Kathryn Starkey and TDC member and Dade City Mayor Camille Hernandez in supporting it.

"The county is changing; people's thoughts are changing," he said. "I think your mindset is still stuck in 20 years ago.

"It's the chicken and the egg," Wilson continued. "We're at 2 percent and there's only so much we can do at 2 percent. How are we going to be a premier county and do things the same way we've been doing them for 20 years? Things are not going to change if we don't change how things are done."

Commissioners Pat Mulieri and Ted Schrader kept quiet at the meeting. Mulieri has supported increasing the tax in the past. Schrader said last month he "wasn't sold" on it.

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