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Hillsborough may be owed tourism tax

A tourism economic impact study indicates that Hillsborough County may have missed up to $2.8-million in uncollected room taxes last year, tourism officials said Tuesday. The officials said they will compare the impact study with state tax collection records to find out whether hotels, motels and other lodging facilities underreported their revenues and paid too little tax. The study comes as the county is deciding how to spend its tourism dollars for the next two years.

Hotels and motels in Hillsborough County reported that overnight visitors to Tampa and other areas in the county spent $247-million on lodging in 1990, according to a study by Davidson-Peterson Associates Inc., a tourism research firm.

The study, commissioned by the Tampa/Hillsborough Convention and Visitors Association (THCVA), polled the 103 hotels and motels and 10 campgrounds and recreational-vehicle parks in the county. Although it was supposed to measure the economic impact of tourism overall, its room revenues data drew the most interest from tourism officials at a THCVA meeting in Tampa.

The revenue figures reported in the study don't jibe with lodging tax figures filed with the state, said Joe Abrahams, treasurer of the THCVA and Tampa's administrator of parks, recreation and cultural services.

According to the study, Hillsborough should have received $7.4-million last year, which is 3 percent of the lodging revenues reported. Instead, the county received $4.6-million, Abrahams said.

"We recognize that there may be some lost dollars, and we have been doing some policing," Abrahams said during the meeting. "But the big dollar figure disturbs me."

Dennis O'Flannery, president of the THCVA and general manager of the Hyatt Regency in downtown Tampa, said he questions the validity of the study.

Some hotels may have exaggerated their revenues to the research firm, he said. Others probably did underreport their revenues, but probably not enough to account for nearly $3-million in unpaid taxes.

The state collects a 4 percent room tax as well as a 6 percent sales tax, from hotels and motels, keeping track on a county-by-county basis. The state sends room tax proceeds to the various tourism development councils.

In Hillsborough County, the tourism development council advises the county commission on how to spend the money. Typically, three quarters of the room tax funds go to boosting the county as a tourism destination and the other 25 percent goes into an escrow account that the Tampa Sports Authority uses for stadium upkeep.

Jim Clark, THCVA executive director, agreed that some hotels and motels may be underreporting their revenues to the state or exaggerating their revenues for the study. Hotels are required by law to tally revenues accurately for the state, he said, but they are free to exaggerate to pollsters.

State tax authorities also may have made mistakes, he added. In recent months, 11 counties have begun collecting their room tax themselves because of previous mistakes by the state, he said. In most cases, the self-collecting counties were able to recoup as much as $1-million in lost taxes.

"Hillsborough County looked at self-collection and didn't think it would be economically feasible," Clark said. "Now this study may change their minds."

The county's tourism development council on Thursday begins its biennial budget-making meetings, during which it recommends how tourism dollars should be spent for the next two years. The council has been predicting smaller budgets for the various tourism entities, O'Flannery said, but now its meeting will probably debate the issue of self-collection all over again.

"It's a very alarming time to come out with the study," O'Flannery said.

The study was designed to measure the economic effect of the 4.45-million people who visited Tampa last year, said Karen Peterson, one of the principals of Davidson-Peterson in York, Maine. Among its highlights:

Visitors _ including people on business trips or attending conventions _ spent $1.71-billion here. Of that, $446-million went to stores, $436-million to restaurants and $428-million to recreational events such as Busch Gardens, museums and concerts, the study states. Ground transportation, such as buses and taxis, attracted $157-million in tourism dollars.

Hotels and motels got their share, about $247-million. Hillsborough County's hotels and motels reported some of the highest room rates in the country, an average of $71.38 per room per night, Peterson said.

Business people or those attending conventions spent the most money in the county, about $449-million and $222-million, respectively, the study indicated. People coming to Tampa purely for pleasure spent $283-million last year.

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