Sunday, April 22, 2018
Business

Seminole Hard Rock Hotel in Tampa doesn't pay taxes. So why do its customers?

TAMPA — Book a room at any hotel in Hillsborough County and there will be a 12 percent tax on the bill. Some of that money goes to the state and some to the county.

The same 12 percent is charged at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Tampa, one of Hillsborough's priciest. But that tax doesn't go to state or local governments. It goes into the pocket of the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

The Hard Rock, located next to the Florida State Fairgrounds, is on sovereign tribal land free from all state and local taxes. Yet the Seminoles choose to impose a tax on its customers, anyway, at the same rate required of other Hillsborough County hotels.

It's a similar story in Broward County, where hotels collect 11 percent tax on each night's stay. There, the 469-room Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Hollywood — also on tribal land — charges an additional 11 percent, too.

State Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa, calls the tribe's hotel tax a "guise" to charge customers more while making it seem like Florida governments are getting a share. Santiago Corrada, Hillsborough County's top tourism promoter, said he didn't know about it and questioned if it was fair.

The tax has likely generated millions of dollars in additional revenue for the tribe's already hugely profitable casino business.

But Gary Bitner, a spokesman for the Seminoles, said the tax, in part, is charged to help other local hotels. Otherwise, the Hard Rock would have "an unfair competitive advantage over other area hotels" by undercutting their prices, he said. And the money collected goes toward government functions for the tribe, such as police and fire rescue.

"The unquestionable right of sovereign, self-governing American Indian tribes to levy sales taxes," Bitner said, "is recognized by the U.S. Congress, the executive branch and federal courts."

• • •

The tribe's Tampa hotel services the cavernous Hard Rock Casino, one of the largest in the world. It is the most lucrative casino in the Florida tribe's gambling empire, a business that reportedly pulls in more than $2 billion a year.

At 239 rooms, the hotel is modest in size, but expensive. Midweek, the cheapest room is more than $200. A Saturday night stay runs $599.

That's pre-tax. The Tampa Bay Times recently reserved a room at the hotel at a rate of $259 for one night. At the bottom of the reservation was a charge for $31.08 in taxes.

When patrons pay for a room at most hotels in Hillsborough, they pay a 7 percent sales tax and a 5 percent tourist development tax. The hotel remits the tax to the government and keeps the room charge.

In the case of the Seminoles, the tribe keeps the room revenue and the tax.

Bitner said that has been the case since the Hard Rock hotels opened in Tampa and Hollywood in 2004.

It was still news to several longtime local officials, including Corrada; Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller, whose district surrounds the casino; and county Tax Collector Doug Belden.

"The minimum they should do is have some kind of disclosure that this tax is not going to local government or the state of Florida," Belden said, though he added that he has never received a complaint.

Without access to tribal finances, it's impossible for an outsider to know how much revenue those taxes provide the Seminoles. As a sovereign nation — a status that recognizes the tribe's ability to manage its own affairs and control its own destiny — the Seminoles' inner workings are not public record. An estimate is difficult as well. Casinos often provide complimentary rooms to gamblers for a variety of reasons, and occupancy rates are private.

Young, who as a House member spearheaded negotiations on a new gaming compact with the tribe, thinks the county deserves a bigger cut.

"If they're going to be collecting bed taxes in our county they should be remitting those to Hillsborough County," she said.

That suggestion, however, flies in the face of decades of federal law and court rulings that treat American Indian land as self-governing. Tribes throughout the country have used hotel occupancy taxes as a revenue source since at least the early 1990s.

"When you go to Georgia, do you also think those taxes should go to Florida?" said Nathaniel Amdur-Clark, a professor of federal Indian law at the University of Florida. "Tribes can tax anyone in their territory. The tribe is a government. It's not a club or a private organization."

• • •

Last year, Hillsborough County collected $29 million in tourist development taxes — the 5 percent tax on each night's stay at a hotel or motel. It's sometimes called a "bed tax."

Hillsborough uses those taxes to finance renovations at venues like Raymond James Stadium and George M. Steinbrenner Field. About $11.6 million in 2016 went to Visit Tampa Bay, the non-profit organization that handles tourism promotion and advertises county attractions and hotels to visitors.

In lieu of collecting county bed taxes, the Seminoles contribute quarterly an undisclosed amount to Visit Tampa Bay and the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"The voluntary contributions are unconditional and made in support of the tourism marketing programs of Hillsborough and Broward counties," Bitner said.

But Corrada, president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay, said the amount is considerably less than what other hotels contribute in bed taxes and it's based on "a gentlemen's agreement from over a decade ago." He has discussed modifying it with Seminole leaders.

"We're in a position where we like all of our hotels and Airbnb to pay their fair share if they're accommodating visitors to their destination," Corrada said. He noted that the Hard Rock Casino is a marketing asset that Visit Tampa Bay highlights to drive tourists to the region.

Hillsborough County receives about $3 million annually as part of the revenue sharing agreement between the Seminoles and the state, an acknowledgement that the Hard Rock Casino impacts local roads and infrastructure.

But Miller said roads around the Hard Rock are in bad shape and county taxpayers will have to pick up the tab.

"They're collecting money because they can do it and we can't stop them," Miller said. "I just wish they would take some of that to work on the roads out there."

Some local hotels might actually appreciate the surcharge the Hard Rock charges customers, even if it doesn't go to promote tourism here, said Bob Morrison, executive director of the Hillsborough County Hotel and Motel Association. The Hard Rock is a member of the association.

"It would indicate they are not trying to undercut other hotels in the market," Morrison said. "It's one of those issues that has multiple layers associated with it. I would counsel that we shouldn't run to a negative conclusion without more information."

Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] and (813) 226-3433. Follow @scontorno.

   
Comments
Some people are paying for cuddles. And it’s not what you might think.

Some people are paying for cuddles. And it’s not what you might think.

When Samantha Hess’s marriage ended five years ago, she felt she was lacking a basic human need: Physical touch. As a woman in her late 20s living in Portland, Oregon, she found plenty of men interested in dating, but sexual contact was not what she ...
Published: 04/21/18
Judge: Foreclosure defense lawyer Mark Stopa violated numerous rules of conduct

Judge: Foreclosure defense lawyer Mark Stopa violated numerous rules of conduct

Tampa Bay foreclosure defense lawyer Mark Stopa has violated numerous rules of professional conduct and caused two clients to nearly lose their homes because he failed to tell them about settlement offers from their banks. Those were among the prelim...
Published: 04/20/18
Updated: 04/21/18
Goodwill to open second store in greater Brandon

Goodwill to open second store in greater Brandon

Times staffThe greater Brandon area will celebrate the grand opening of its second Goodwill store beginning at 9 a.m. on Saturday (April 28) at 1407 U.S. 301. The new store will add another 12,000 square feet to the complex, which includes a 200,000-...
Published: 04/20/18
Updated: 04/21/18
Regulators allow major solar company to lease home equipment

Regulators allow major solar company to lease home equipment

State regulators Friday determined that one of the country’s largest residential solar companies, San Francisco-based Sunrun, is allowed to lease solar energy equipment for homes in Florida. The decision, solar energy advocates say, could open the do...
Published: 04/20/18
Florida unemployment at 3.9 percent for sixth straight month

Florida unemployment at 3.9 percent for sixth straight month

For the sixth month running, Florida’s unemployment rate held at a nearly 11-year low of 3.9 percent in March as steady job gains continued. While many factors kept Florida’s economy chugging along, three industries stand out for leading year-over-ye...
Published: 04/20/18
Owners say new house is a disaster; developer accuses them of ‘online terrorism’

Owners say new house is a disaster; developer accuses them of ‘online terrorism’

ST. PETERSBURG --- Stretched across the front of Tim and Hyun Kims’ two-year-old house is a big banner with the name of a developer and the words: "I have to fix my new house."Some of what needs fixing is instantly apparent. The front steps are too ...
Published: 04/20/18
Florida hits a milestone: More than 100,000 people are registered to use medical marijuana here

Florida hits a milestone: More than 100,000 people are registered to use medical marijuana here

Florida has hit a milestone of sorts as it slowly moves toward wider availability of medical marijuana.The number of patients in the state who are registered to use the substance has surpassed 100,000 for the first time, according to Florida Departme...
Published: 04/20/18
Q&A: Walmart leader chats about Florida stores, and the chain’s latest retail strategy

Q&A: Walmart leader chats about Florida stores, and the chain’s latest retail strategy

The Tampa Bay Times recently sat down with Walmart director of corporate communications Phillip Keene to chat about the retail giant’s latest retail strategies and how the company is winning over customers in a competitive market.Already, two of the ...
Published: 04/20/18
SunTrust warns 1.5 million clients of potential data breach

SunTrust warns 1.5 million clients of potential data breach

Associated PressNEW YORK — SunTrust Banks Inc. says accounts for 1.5 million clients could be compromised following a potential data breach. The Atlanta bank says that it became aware of the potential theft by a former employee and that the investiga...
Published: 04/20/18
Spring break, hurricane relief boosted Tampa Bay hotels in March

Spring break, hurricane relief boosted Tampa Bay hotels in March

The Tampa Bay area’s hotel occupancy rate rose to 87.5 percent in March, the highest level in three years. The rise was fueled by spring break vacationers as well as insurance adjusters and hurricane cleanup crews flooding the state to restore it aft...
Published: 04/20/18