TALLAHASSEE — Florida tourism executives endured a second day of withering criticism from legislators Wednesday for spending scarce tax dollars on bonuses for executives, overseas travel and other perks.
Desperate to close a state budget deficit that could reach $6 billion next year, senators pored line by line through spending by VisitFlorida, a tax-supported agency that promotes Florida around the world. Senators questioned $1.3 million for travel, $500,000 to entertain travel writers and $85,000 for four directors' meetings.
Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, said he dialed the agency's call center five times and kept getting wrong information about Florida, such as that landlocked Tallahassee had a beach. "It is shocking to me," Diaz de la Portilla said when officials conceded they never called the call center themselves.
The agency's chief executive officer, Bud Nocera, said marketing Florida would be impossible without an assist from Florida taxpayers, and the agency has to make sure lawmakers know "we are doing a great job for the state of Florida." VisitFlorida reports to the tourism office under Gov. Charlie Crist.
Dissecting the agency's budget, Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, noted that VisitFlorida is spending about $18 million on advertising, which he called "the absolute No. 1 priority," but taxpayers give the agency $35 million, which accounts for more than half of its $64 million in operating cash.
Taxpayer support for VisitFlorida has steadily increased from $22 million in 2003 to $35 million this year. Tourism executives produced a chart showing a steady increase in tourism, from 45 million visitors in 1996 when the agency was created to more than 80 million in 2007.
VisitFlorida, which lists 115 paid positions, also gave the Senate a list showing that eight employees earn more than $100,000 a year and seven received bonuses in 2008. Nocera, who earns $222,000, received a $25,000 bonus, and the chief financial officer got a $30,000 bonus atop his $167,000 salary.
The fierce questioning was triggered by a revelation that VisitFlorida hired a call center in Kansas City, Mo., for $600,000, to field calls from Florida-bound tourists. The firm, USA800, is being fired, but that will be too late to avoid a major embarrassment for tourism executives who pride themselves on marketing savvy and smart business decisions.
Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, accused tourism officials of "a fatal flaw in your judgment" for hiring an out-of-state call center when Floridians are desperate for work.
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, the committee chairman, told Nocera that he would urge the Senate to force VisitFlorida to pay salaries and bonuses with private funds, not tax dollars.
Richard Goldman of Amelia Island Plantation, chairman of VisitFlorida's board, defended the salaries and bonuses as the result of an analysis of comparable pay at other tourism agencies. Goldman conceded VisitFlorida has to repair its credibility and improve communication with the Legislature.
"We need to be able to deal in this environment," Goldman said. "I'm going to give the Legislature the benefit of the doubt."
Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, suggested Florida needs a "tourism czar" who would be personally accountable for how tax dollars are used to promote the state. She urged other senators that in their vigilance to scrutinize the agency's budget that "we don't belittle the mission of promoting tourism."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.