NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco commissioners say the debate about whether to increase the tax on hotel rooms will likely surface again next year as they look for ways to lure sports tournaments and boost tourism.
The 2 percent tax on hotel stays — or bed tax, as it's known — has been derided by hotel owners since its inception in the early 1990s. But Pasco officials say it's necessary and should be increased to lure more athletic events such as the Dick's Sporting Goods Lacrosse Tournament of Champions, which draws more than 90 teams yearly.
The tax is already the region's lowest — behind Hernando and Citrus counties, which charge 3 percent each on hotel stays, and Pinellas and Hillsborough, which charge 5 percent.
"If we're looking to generate revenues not on the backs of our citizens, this may be the best way to do that," Pasco Commissioner Henry Wilson said of the tax.
The problem is Pasco's tourism development office — wholly supported by bed taxes — is tapped out and can't entice more athletic tournaments until it figures out how to increase revenue to pay for promotions.
That's left officials contemplating a boost in bed taxes, not only for sports marketing but a host of programs from field maintenance to capital projects such as the proposed youth sports complex at Wiregrass Ranch.
Over the years, tourism officials have built a nest egg of more than $8 million for Wiregrass. The $34 million baseball and softball complex would be built in partnership with Tampa-based Blue Marble Strategic.
The bed tax debate surfaces almost yearly. Previous attempts to increase it have stalled, mainly due to a backlash from hotel owners. It's likely commissioners will hear similar arguments this time around, too — including from the county's biggest player in tourism, Saddlebrook Resort.
Greg Riehle, senior vice president of Saddlebrook, said his company has paid more than $5 million since the tax started and hasn't seen much return outside the annual lacrosse tournament.
"We get almost no bang for our buck," Riehle said, adding the tax hurts the resort and its employees and limits the company's ability to lure parties and conventions on fixed budgets. "Every hotelier I talk to is against it."
Another criticism, this one aimed at Wiregrass, argues that's it's too early to boost bed taxes when the Wiregrass deal with Blue Marble hasn't been finalized.
"No one has demonstrated what the money will be used for," Pasco Commissioner Ted Schrader said. "The only argument I'm hearing is that the surrounding counties have a higher bed tax so we should. That's not a good enough reason."
Commission Chairman Jack Mariano said he has concerns too. Bed taxes have helped projects in east Pasco — including Wiregrass and the lacrosse fields at Wesley Chapel District Park — but they haven't benefitted west Pasco.
"We're taking all of our tourist development money and putting all of it over at one end of the county and I don't think that's right," he said. "I think we should pull all these plans together, as far as what we want, and see if we can design parks in the right way that can create revenue for everyone."
Mariano said he expects the bed tax debate to resume shortly after the new year.
"It may not come up for a vote, but to talk about it anyway," he said.
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.