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Pinellas commissioners approve extending tourist tax

CLEARWATER — The Pinellas County Commission narrowly voted late Tuesday to extend the tourist tax and help the Salvador Dali Museum cover a construction shortfall.

But the commission did away with permanently extending the 5 percent tax on hotel stays, as originally proposed. Instead, the board added a requirement that part of the tax stop in 2021.

While giving $2.5 million in tax money to the Dali Museum keyed the measure, the 2021 sunset eased another political hang-up. The proposal could have reserved tens of millions in tax money for a possible new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays, a powder keg issue.

The extension into perpetuity failed to muster the approval of five of the seven commissioners, which was required to change the tourist tax. But Commissioner Neil Brickfield offered the 2021 sunset and changed sides to provide the minimum five votes to pass the extension and end a contentious two hours of debate.

"I don't see a lot of people up here very comfortable with what we're doing," Brickfield said.

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, who made a rare appearance at a commission meeting, said the board succumbed to the idea that the measure was about a future Rays stadium, as critics suggested. Nonetheless, the change does little damage to what Dali supporters want, he said.

But the night certainly created fireworks. At the end, Foster got nearly nose-to-nose with tax opponent Hamilton Hanson in a hallway. Hanson accused Foster of secretly engaging in talks with the Rays.

"It's not taking place, I'll tell you that straight to your face right now," Foster said before seeking an elevator.

The rewrite and extension of the tourist tax was spurred by the Dali Museum's seeking $5 million to cover a shortfall in its $36 million new building in St. Petersburg. The city previously agreed to pay the other $2.5 million. The museum will borrow against the funding promise.

Besides helping the Dali museum, however, the commission approval expands the use of the tax for museums and other nonprofits for marketing or construction projects. The tourist tax also will be expanded to include spending for "zoological parks" — short for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium — and youth sports fields.

Besides Foster, business leaders such as Gus Stavros and Tom James extolled the Dali. The museum puts about 115,000 people in hotels annually and produces a $60 million economic impact, said Hank Hine, Dali museum director.

"The Dali is critically important not only to Pinellas County, the state of Florida, but to the world," Stavros told the board.

Meanwhile, tax opponents who attended the meeting sighed and scoffed in their seats among the crowd of about 50.

The approval was a blow to the critics, including tea party members opposed to the permanent extension of the tax for a private, nonprofit museum. They railed against it as an unnecessary bailout taking of public money for private gain.

"This is a little ridiculous, especially during a recession," said St. Petersburg resident Rod Moren. "These people who want our tax dollars, let them spend their money for it. I don't want you to extend the tourist tax."

But besides Brickfield, Commissioners Susan Latvala, John Morroni, Karen Seel and Ken Welch supported the extension and changes to the tax. Commissioners Nancy Bostock and Norm Roche objected, questioning the depth of the board's review while extending a tax.

To provide the museum money, the fourth and fifth cents had to be extended past their 2015 sunset, which helps pay the debt on Tropicana Field. By state law, the fourth cent has to be charged or the fifth cent cannot.

Generating $25 million annually, the tax is paid by tourists, unlike property taxes and other taxes that mostly affect locals. But the sour economy and the recent conservative turn in politics made the extension a tougher sell — particularly when it could mean subsidizing a new stadium or a museum.

Wrestling with extending the tax, some commissioners downplayed the stadium angle in favor of helping the Dali and updating how the tourist tax is spent for the first time in two decades. Latvala blamed the St. Petersburg Times for linking baseball to the tax.

During the debate, Roche noted that the ordinance specifically allows much of the fourth cent for a stadium.

After 2015, no more than 80 percent of the money generated by the fourth cent would be used for a new stadium — an allowance short-circuited by the 2021 sunset. The fifth cent will go toward tourism promotion.

Any project beyond the Dali must win commission approval, including a ball park. After five years, the entire funding plan has to be reviewed and reapproved.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

Pinellas commissioners approve extending tourist tax 11/30/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 1, 2010 11:49am]
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