In 1990, Pasco County voters approved a new tax on overnight accommodations to boost local tourism even though supporters had no consensus on how to spend it. Two decades later, nothing's changed.
Wednesday, a plan to increase the tourist tax by a penny on the dollar stalled amid Commissioner Jack Mariano's parochialism and Commissioner Ted Schrader's ill-advised pitch to tap capital dollars for promotional expenses.
It was an unexpected and disappointing outcome, given Mariano's past support of the proposed tax increase which requires a four-fifths vote of the commission for adoption. The higher tax had been projected to raise an additional $370,000 annually, most of which would be used to boost sports marketing efforts. Instead, the county must now rewrite its new tourism plan to reflect the commission's unwillingness to finance it as presented.
It must be noted that an added tax would not put local motels at a competitive disadvantage. A 3 percent rate matches the charge in Hernando and Citrus counties and is less than the 5 percent tourist tax charged in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Polk counties. At a public hearing, east and central Pasco hoteliers opposed the increase while west side interests favored it.
Schrader, at least, was consistent in disputing the tourist tax increase, having voted against the measure when it was introduced last year. Wednesday, he renewed his objection and suggested using more impact fee money to build a sports-based complex in Trinity and offsetting added promotional expenses with tourist tax reserves set aside for capital construction. Tapping banked money for recurring expenses is a dangerous precedent that shouldn't be encouraged even if the added promotional costs are less than 4 percent of the capital account.
Mariano, however, shows no such consistency unless it's his irritating inability to count votes and recognize his continued push to kill the Sportsplex USA complex in Trinity in favor of a site in his district is a lost cause.
Mariano supported the county's new tourism plan when it was introduced and voted in a 4-1 majority to move forward with the tax increase to pay for it. Wednesday, however, he faulted the plan — mostly because its stated goal to build Pasco into a premier sports tourism destination didn't include a complex larger than five softball diamonds in Trinity. Mariano is seeking a 10-field complex in his Hudson-based district.
The naked provincialism damages Mariano's credibility. Holding hostage the tourism plan and tax increase to fund it undermines his own past contributions that helped push the county as a host for youth and amateur sports events as a way to boost overnight visitors.
Pasco is destined to forever play a distant second fiddle to Pinellas' beaches, central Florida's theme parks and even Polk County's sports facilities without a cohesive and appropriately financed plan to attract tourists here, no matter where or how many ball fields commissioners decide to build in the meantime.