BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County's tourism development coordinator didn't pull any punches when she addressed her bosses this week.
"We're stretched beyond thin,'' Tammy Heon told the County Commission as she made her pitch to increase the county's tourist tax from 3 percent to 5 percent.
The increase, Heon argued, would enable her to keep open the visitor center near the Interstate 75/Cortez Boulevard interchange and allow for broader marketing efforts that could draw more visitors — and their wallets — to Hernando.
Commissioners unanimously approved the increase in the bed tax, which is not paid by residents but by visitors staying in the county's hotels and at other short-term lodging.
"We're here today because of our success,'' Heon said, noting that the tourism center that opened a year ago at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park had 25,000 visitors.
"All of our efforts are paying off,'' she said.
But because the 3 percent tax rate on overnight stays has not increased since 1998, Heon said, she was facing some difficult decisions since the cost of marketing continues to rise.
She recently suggested to the commission that the county close the tourism office in Ridge Manor West. But negative reaction was immediate, including a strong pitch by SunTrust Bank executive Jim Kimbrough to keep the office open, because the interstate interchange serves as the gateway for many visitors to Hernando County.
With widening planned for both the interstate and State Road 50, the area is going to "be increasingly more important for Hernando County's economic growth,'' Heon said.
With the added tax revenue, she also hopes to increase staffing so that one of her workers can scour the county to find advertisers to support a new comprehensive visitors guide.
In addition, the extra money will allow the tourism office to again offer grants for festivals and other events that draw tourists.
The tourist tax in Citrus County is 3 cents, and it is 2 cents in Pasco and Sumter. But Heon said that both Citrus and Pasco are considering increasing their taxes to 4 cents.
She said the increase to 5 cents in Hernando would allow her to take the county's promotional efforts to a higher level.
Heon got strong support for the increase.
"I'm highly in favor of the 5 cents,'' said county Commissioner Nick Nicholson. "The benefits will be immense to the county.''
Several residents also spoke in favor of the increased tax. They said they never think twice about what they pay in tourist tax when they travel.
"That's the cost of staying in a hotel for the night,'' said John Scharch, a member of the Hernando Planning and Zoning Commission.
Each extra cent will raise about $130,000 in revenue a year.
Contact Barbara Behrendt at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.