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Pasco County Commission votes against tourist tax hike

DADE CITY — An effort to raise the tourist tax by a penny failed Wednesday over lingering doubts about the fate of a proposed softball complex in Trinity.

County staff, along with the Tourist Development Council, had pushed for the extra percentage, saying it would help Pasco become more competitive with surrounding counties that collect much more in tourist taxes.

"In five years, think of where we can be with this penny," said tourism manager Eric Keaton.

Officials projected the extra percentage charged — from 2 percent to 3 percent — would have given the county another $350,000, pushing the total take in tourism dollars to more than $1 million a year. Part of that was proposed to pay for a new staff member to focus on sports marketing. Pasco has made sports events a priority when it comes to spending tourism money.

But the Trinity sports complex, a $12 million project that would be partially funded with the tourist tax, shaped both the debate and the vote. That project got thrown for a loop after nearby Heritage Springs residents flooded a commission meeting earlier this month to challenge its location near their community.

Though the proposed increase would have little impact on the sports complex itself, Commissioner Michael Cox said raising the tax was a hard sell when it appears officials "can't get our act together" when it comes to getting that project off the ground.

"Right now, we're floundering" said Cox, the complex's most outspoken champion on the board. He added later, "I just believe the timing of the increase should be more in line when we have something on the ground."

Instead, commissioners voted 4-1 to hold the tax rate at 2 percent plus approve a new tourism plan for 2010-2014 that calls for spending less money on capital construction projects and more on advertising and special events.

Commissioner Jack Mariano dissented, saying he did not like the tourism plan. Mariano has been a frequent critic of the proposed sports complex in Trinity and raised some of his earlier concerns, including the size of the project.

Chairwoman Pat Mulieri and Ann Hildebrand voted with the majority though both had expressed support for raising the tax, which is levied on guests of motels, hotels and other long-stay lodging. Hildebrand's motion to raise the tax died for a lack of a second.

Mulieri, a strong supporter of the extra penny on the tourist tax, called her vote an "aye with regret" and said the board's decision represented a step backward. She said she disagreed with arguments made by Saddlebrook Resort and some others that the increase could hurt the hospitality business.

"One cent on the dollar is not going to scare people from Pasco County," she said.

Back in February, Pasco commissioners did not vote on the increase after it became clear that they lacked the supermajority — four votes — necessary to pass the measure. At that time, it appeared the only two holdouts were Mariano and Commissioner Ted Schrader, who said he couldn't support the tax increase because of the state of the economy and the availability of other funds — impact fees and bond proceeds — to build the sports complex.

Commissioners sent it back to their advisory board, the Tourist Development Council, and asked them to re-evaluate the spending plan without the increase. But the council last month, in a 6-1 vote, only reaffirmed its previous support to raise the tax.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Pasco County Commission votes against tourist tax hike 04/14/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 14, 2010 9:50pm]

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