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Speaker Corcoran threatens to sue Visit Tampa Bay over financial records

TAMPA — Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran on Friday threatened to subpoena and even sue Hillsborough County's tourism marketing firm if the organization doesn't turn over detailed financial information related to its operations.

Last month, Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, requested from 13 local tourist development councils their fiscal year 2016 revenue and expense reports. In addition to advertising expenses and economic development projects, the demands included a list of employees and their salaries and every expenditure on food and travel down to the penny, according to a copy of the letter sent to localities obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.

Of the 13 jurisdictions, Hillsborough County was the only one that did not fully comply with the request, Corcoran said.

Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill provided Corcoran some details. The county, however, contracts out its $10.7 million tourism marketing budget to Visit Tampa Bay, a nonprofit organization that considers much of that information private.

And so far, Visit Tampa Bay has said it doesn't have to share anything else — putting the agency at odds with Corcoran and in a precarious political position weeks before the start of the 2017 legislative session.

Santiago Corrada, president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay, said the letter wasn't sent to his organization and he was not responsible for the response. But he said he saw the information Hills­borough County provided and thought it was "very detailed."

"I'm pretty certain all 13 counties responded and all responses were similar," Corrada said.

Hillsborough's response didn't satisfy Corcoran.

"Obviously, he's aware of the letter," Corcoran said. "If he wants to play a game, 'It wasn't addressed to me personally and I'm not complying,' we'll see him in court.

"We have a right to those documents, and if they don't want to give them then we'll subpoena them and we'll get those documents."

In a letter dated Thursday, the chairman of the House Tourism and Gaming Control Subcommittee, Rep. Mike La Rosa, R-St. Cloud, gave Corrada until Wednesday to comply.

The inquiry into county tourism spending signals Corcoran is setting his sights beyond axing Visit Florida to its local counterparts. Corcoran has turned a critical eye to the state's tourism marketing arm, forcing Visit Florida to unearth details about its contract with the pop singer Pitbull, and this week he introduced language to eliminate the agency.

Since taking over as House speaker in November, Corcoran has also demanded extensive records from university foundations and county economic development councils in a well-publicized campaign that he says is intended to rein in government spending.

But executing a subpoena would mean exercising a legislative power rarely used in Tallahassee.

"I don't think government should spend money on tourism and marketing at all," Corcoran told the Times on Friday. "Does Hillsborough County have the No. 1 education system? Is it No. 1 in taxation? Is it No. 1 in having the best infrastructure?

"Fix all those things first and, guess what, if they're fixed, business and visitors will want to move to your county."

Hillsborough provided Corcoran's office with quarterly reports from Visit Tampa Bay that included itemized expenses by category. However, not included were the names of employees paid by the organization or who was reimbursed for travel.

Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, meanwhile, sent Corcoran names of employees and more detailed information on spending. Unlike Hillsborough, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater is a Pinellas County government department.

Still, in the face of threats to its budget, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater president and CEO David Downing stressed to Corcoran that tourism marketing helps draw visitors to Pinellas County at no cost to residents.

Across the state, counties pay for tourism marketing with a tourist development tax, also know as a bed tax, which is collected on each night's stay at hotels, motels, RV parks and the like, and not property or sales taxes. State law has strict rules for how bed taxes can be spent, and tourism marketing is one such allowance.

"Our model is simple: tourists pay for tourism promotion," Downing wrote Corcoran.

Visit Tampa Bay has drawn criticism in the past for what some consider a lack of transparency. Corrada said the organization keeps secret certain details to remain competitive as its tries to lure conferences, sporting events and other high-tourism events to the region.

Corrada made $277,000 in 2014, according to Visit Tampa Bay's most recent federal tax filings. Six other individuals in the organization made well over six figures.

But if Corcoran wants to go to battle against Visit Tampa Bay, he will find many defenders of Corrada in Tampa and Hillsborough, even among conservatives.

Corrada, recognizable by his feathered mane and wide smile, is affable and outgoing. Local officials trip over themselves to heap him with praise, and the agency is often credited with boosting tourism to a county that doesn't have the luxury of beaches or world renowned theme parks.

Hillsborough hotels were projected to surpass $30 million in bed tax collections last year for the first time, which would make the county the state's ninth high- impact tourism district.

"If they believe visitors will come because of who we are, we need to learn from the mistakes of other states that eliminated tourism marketing," Corrada said. "We have to be very, very careful."

Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist strongly defended Visit Tampa Bay's efforts as "extremely effective in marketing this region."

But Crist added: "Any government agency that's expensing taxpayer dollars should be transparent."

Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau chief Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433. Follow @scontorno.

.FAST FACTS

Revisiting Florida's tourism dollars

Since taking over as Florida House Speaker, Richard Corcoran has taken a hard stand on how the state spends tourism dollars. On Thursday, the House filed a bill that would abolish Visit Florida, a state agency. He has also said that he wants to take a closer look at local tourism agencies, such as Visit Tampa Bay. Here's a summary of the state and Tampa Bay boards that might be affected.

Visit Florida — A statewide agency that markets Florida to tourists but operates much like a private organization. It's governed by a 31-member board of directors of tourism experts that oversees a budget of $78 million. It has a staff of about 130 full- and part-time employees that work in Canada, Europe, Latin America and even China and India. The agency was criticized for trying to keep confidential its $1 million contract with entertainer Pitbull to promote Florida.

Visit Tampa Bay — A nonprofit organization that promotes Hills­borough County tourism and books events at the Tampa Convention Center. It considers itself a private agency (and receives some private funding), but the lion's share of its funding came from the $10.7 million it got in tourist development taxes collected by county hotels and other short-term accommodations. In 2015, its expenses were $11.5 million.

Visit St. Pete/Clearwater — The official marketing tourism arm for Pinellas County that is funded by 57 percent of the county's tourist bed taxes. Unlike Visit Tampa Bay, however, it's a public agency that reports to the Tourist Development Council, a board of elected officials and tourism executives, and ultimately the Pinellas County Commission. It employs more than 40 people and in 2015 had a budget of about $25 million.

Speaker Corcoran threatens to sue Visit Tampa Bay over financial records 02/03/17 [Last modified: Friday, February 3, 2017 7:43pm]
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