TALLAHASSEE — Senators tore into the state's tourism chief Tuesday after he revealed that Florida hired a call center in Missouri to market Florida as a vacation destination.
"You have a call center in Kansas City — using our tax dollars?" a disbelieving Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, asked Bud Nocera, chief executive of VisitFlorida. The public-private partnership received $35 million in tax dollars this year, the equivalent of about one-third of its budget — the rest comes from private tourist-related businesses.
VisitFlorida budgeted about $600,000 for one year to USA800, a Kansas City telemarketing firm, to field calls from and send brochures to tourists interested in vacationing in Florida. Legislators said they could not understand why a Florida company wasn't hired, especially with unemployment in parts of the state above 10 percent.
The disclosure came at a budget workshop at which Fasano urged senators to scrutinize spending by state agencies as one way to extricate Florida from a potential budget shortfall of $6 billion this year and next.
"People lose confidence in their government when they hear these kinds of things, really," said Senate Majority Leader Alex Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, also a member of the Senate panel overseeing tourism spending.
VisitFlorida hired USA800 after the company submitted a less expensive bid than the only other responding firm, Global Response of Broward County. But when Nocera said VisitFlorida is firing USA800 now — with five months left on its contract — for unsatisfactory performance, senators howled with sarcastic laughter.
Then Fasano demanded a copy of every contract between VisitFlorida and private companies and lectured Nocera: "Let's do our best to make sure we contract with companies in Florida."
VisitFlorida last month barely escaped a major budget cut. Lawmakers slashed $10 million but Gov. Charlie Crist restored it with his veto pen, calling tourism a vital cog in Florida's economy, with a $65 billion positive economic impact in 2007.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.