NEW PORT RICHEY — A proposal to raise the tourist tax by a penny failed to muster enough votes Wednesday amid a nearly two-hour, sometimes testy debate that lingered on the proposed $11 million sports complex in Trinity.
Pasco commissioners did not take a vote on the measure, but it was clear they lacked the four-vote super-majority necessary to raise the surcharge on overnight stays in Pasco hotels and resorts from 2 percent to 3 percent.
The tax increase was tied to revisions to the tourism ordinance, which included a makeover of the tourism plan. That makeover included beefing up the county's marketing budget, recreational activities and events sponsorships.
Opposing the measure were commissioners Ted Schrader and Jack Mariano. The pair cited different reasons for their opposition.
Schrader said he couldn't justify supporting the tax increase because of the state of the economy.
But he said he also based his reasoning on the notion that the additional tourist tax revenue is not necessary: Enough impact fee funds ($9.2 million for the Trinity area) and bond proceeds ($7 million) are available to build what has been touted as the county's first major tourism facility — the sports complex in Trinity — without tourism money.
"Why not use what we've got?" he said.
Mariano, who supported the tax increase in the first public hearing last year, centered his opposition on some of the details in the tourism plan, including the use of tourism money on park signs. But his biggest beef continued to be with the proposed sports complex in Trinity and the consultant on that project, the California-based Sportsplex USA.
He reiterated that the sports complex, which would include a mix of softball and baseball fields plus a restaurant, is not a "premier" sports facility that will lure tourists to Pasco.
"We've got to focus on getting bigger events, and the facilities we have or are thinking of constructing will fall short," Mariano said.
In the end, commissioners put off until April 14 a vote on the ordinance changes. County staff will return with a tourism plan that does not assume the extra revenue — estimated to be at least $250,000 a year — that would have come in with the tax increase.
At Wednesday's meeting, commission chairwoman Pat Mulieri was one of the most outspoken proponents for adding the 1 cent to the tourism tax, which would still keep Pasco one of the lowest in the region.
"That extra cent can really help us put ourselves out there," she said.
Commissioners have already voted 4-1 to pursue building the sports complex on county-owned property off Trinity Boulevard. Mariano was the dissenting vote. County administrators are negotiating with Sportsplex on an operating agreement.
But at times, Wednesday's debate on the tax increase became a retrial on the Sportsplex decision.
David Larson of the Hampton Inn & Suites in Wesley Chapel told commissioners he thought the Trinity sports complex was "a waste of money."
"You're paying to build a restaurant so somebody can make money off your fields," he said.
Mulieri asked him where he thought the sports complex should go. Commissioner Michael Cox, one of Sportsplex's biggest supporters, answered the question for him.
"Wesley Chapel. Of course," Cox said. "There's so much parochialism going on here, it's disgusting."
Cox said critics of Sportsplex were wrongly discrediting the thousands of nights of hotel stays generated by tournaments that took place at one of its California facilities.
Mariano jumped in, saying the figures that Sportsplex had provided were not concrete. "That evidence was based on assumptions. … It did not document the nights," he said.
Pasco has been collecting the tourism tax for nearly 20 years and has no major project to show for it. Cox, toward the end of the meeting, said he felt that the tax needed to be at 3 cents. But he acknowledged how the long debates over how to spend the tourism money appear to the public.
"We can't get our act together on how to spend the 2 cent (tax)," he said.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.