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New tourism tax milestone also means new funding options for Pinellas

Five "high tourism impact" counties in Florida are already allowed to charge — and collect — more tourist development taxes.

Now Pinellas County is on the verge of becoming the sixth.

"We're in the big boy leagues now," said D.T. Minich, chief executive officer of the Pinellas tourism agency Visit St. Pete/Clearwater.

To be certified as a "high tourism impact" county, Pinellas has to collect $30 million in tourist development taxes — also called bed taxes — in one calendar year.

The Pinellas County Tax Collector said the county did just that, collecting about $30,041,000 in the first 11 months and two weeks of 2013. Pinellas hit the mark without the tax receipts from the last two weeks of December, which aren't due until the end of this month.

It won't be official until the Florida Department of Revenue counts and certifies 2013's calendar year tourism tax receipts in the next few weeks.

This latest achievement is yet another sign of the continued strength — and growth — of the Pinellas tourism industry.

"This is a huge milestone for the county to be in this category," Minich said.

Pinellas already set a record for bed tax collections in fiscal year 2013. The county collected $31 million over that time period — each fiscal year ends in October — which is an 8 percent increase from the old record, $28.7 million collected in fiscal year 2012.

The tourism development tax is a 5 percent surcharge added to the bill of every hotel room and accommodation rented out for less than six months.

The state's "high tourism impact" areas are Broward, Monroe, Orange, Osceola and Walton counties. Those counties can tack a 6 percent surcharge onto their rental bills, giving them more revenue to fund tourism marketing and other initiatives.

Much has to happen before Pinellas would increase its 5 percent bed tax, however. First, the Pinellas County Tourist Development Council — a board of public officials and private tourism business owners — must recommend that the tax be raised. Then it's up to the Pinellas County Commission to decide the issue.

Boosting the tourist tax to 6 percent could raise another $6 million for the county. But it could meet with resistance. Not only would the commissioners have to vote for a tax increase, they also must weigh whether the higher tax will dissuade visitors to Pinellas' beaches.

The Pinellas tourism development tax is used to fund tourism marketing, beach restoration and certain infrastructure projects, such as Tropicana Field.

But in 2015, the Trop debt will be paid off, freeing $6 million in funds raised by the tourist tax. Backers of new projects — a new Clearwater aquarium, a BMX complex in Oldsmar, keeping the Blue Jays spring training home in Dunedin — are already lining up.

The extra revenue also could be used to build a new baseball stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays in Pinellas. But the commission seems highly skeptical of that idea, and the team seems to be leaning away from staying in Pinellas anyway. The Rays want permission to look in Hillsborough County.

Jamal Thalji can be reached at (813) 226-3404, or @jthalji on Twitter.

New tourism tax milestone also means new funding options for Pinellas 01/15/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 15, 2014 9:02pm]
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