NEW PORT RICHEY — A majority of county commissioners said Wednesday they are open to increasing Pasco's 2 percent tourist tax, the lowest levy in the Tampa Bay area.
Commissioner Henry Wilson floated the idea of doubling the tax rate to 4 percent on overnight stays at Pasco hotels, resorts and other short-term lodgings. Part of the money sponsors events such as the Dick's Sporting Goods national lacrosse tournament, which was held over the New Year's weekend in Wesley Chapel.
"We can't do much more (event sponsorship) with just 2 percent," Wilson said during a workshop focused in part on enhancing Pasco's quality of life.
He got quick agreement from Commissioners Pat Mulieri and Kathryn Starkey.
"If we want to be the premier county, it's going to come at a bit of a cost," Starkey said.
After the spontaneous support for the tax proposal, the normally unflappable tourism director Eric Keaton raised his arms in the universal signal for "touchdown."
County Administrator John Gallagher asked whether to "strike while the iron is hot" and schedule the two-penny increase for the next commission meeting in two weeks. But commissioners decided to discuss the possible tax increase alongside the yearly tourism report at a workshop in February.
It would require a supermajority — at least four of the five commissioners — to approve the tax increase. The money must be spent on advertising, events or amenities that draw tourists to Pasco County.
Commissioner Ted Schrader said he is "not sold" on raising the tourist tax. Commissioner Jack Mariano opposed a penny increase in 2010 but said he is open to the idea if officials change how the money is spent. He wants to limit funding for local events and add flexibility to make improvements at facilities, such as adding fields at the Wesley Chapel District Park or building a boardwalk at the future SunWest park in Aripeka.
"I just didn't want to throw more money after a bad plan," he said.
Last year, the county collected $822,000 in tourist taxes. About $170,000 was spent on local cultural events and sporting events that bring out-of-county visitors. That's up from a total of $20,000 for two events in 2007.
A portion of the money also goes toward building a future tourism destination. Since the tax took effect 20 years ago, Pasco has collected $14 million in construction money that is now earmarked for a multi-field sports complex in Wesley Chapel.
Keaton praised the renewed interest in boosting the tourism tax. With the extra revenue, he said, the county could sponsor more events like the national lacrosse tournament that many families used as a vacation. The event filled Saddlebrook Resort and other hotels in the area.
"It comes down to quality events," he said. "Just ask Wesley Chapel small businesses and the Shops at Wiregrass how they did during the Dick's Tournament of Champions."
Keaton will present detailed plans for the upcoming year at a Tourist Development Council meeting next Wednesday. Then he will take the plan to commissioners.
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.
Mulieri was one of the most outspoken supporters of a failed penny increase in 2010.
"If you're going to create a community, you need to create places," she said. "Tourism and arts are a big part of that. (The tax) doesn't affect our people. It affects people coming in."
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.