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County rejects tourist-tax proposal

The County Commission on Wednesday rejected a recommendation that would have eliminated the use of tourist tax money to support such popular events as the Florida State Fair. Under the proposal, events that had a "net profit" would have been ineligible for money from the county's Tourist Development Council. The council, which recommends how Hillsborough should spend money it receives from the 4 percent tax on hotel rooms and other room rentals, offered Wednesday's proposal.

The issue arose because the tourist council faces a $1.5-million gap between the money it expects to receive next year and the amount of requests for support, said Gene Gray, a county official assigned to the council.

Usually, more groups seek money for tourism promotion than the council has to spend, but this year's gap is about one-third larger than usual, he said.

The problem is blamed on the recession and a slow winter tourist and convention season. Fewer rooms are being rented, leading to less-than-anticipated tourist tax dollars, Gray said.

The council expected to have $4.9-million to spend on tourism promotion this year, but lower tax revenue means that figure may fall short by $200,000 to $300,000, Gray said. Looking ahead, the council already has reduced its anticipated 1992 revenue, from $5.2-million to about $5-million, he said.

The council's promotion budget receives 75 percent of the tax revenues, with the remainder going to the Tampa Sports Authority.

Three groups that are seeking tourist tax money for the 1991-92 fiscal year made money on their most recent projects: The Hall of Fame Bowl; the Florida State Fairgrounds Authority, which puts on the state fair and other events; and Stadium Jumping, a company that holds two horse jumping events.

Several commissioners stressed that although those groups make a profit, they usually use that money to support their events, not to line investors' pockets with profit. And they have an overall economic benefit on the area, officials said.

Commissioner Jim Selvey warned that without money to attract nationally ranked college football teams, the Hall of Fame Bowl might slip in the competitive world of New Year's Day bowl games.

"The contract with NBC is up this year, and they could move us to another time, or even decide not to show it," said Selvey.

But at least one commissioner disagreed.

"With diminishing tourist tax dollars, it doesn't make any sense to give money to groups that make a profit," Commissioner Jan Platt said.

Although the Tourist Development Council reviews requests for support, the County Commission has the final say.

"I'm concerned about what making a profit means," said Commission Chairwoman Phyllis Busansky.

For example, the fairgrounds authority has a reserve of $1.6-million from extra revenue it earned in recent years. But Gray, the county's tourism official, said he has been told that money is earmarked for construction and other improvements at the fairgrounds.

"How you define what's a profit is open for debate," Gray said.

The Hall of Fame Bowl brought in about $400,000 more than it spent in 1990, records show. There are contrasting figures in Stadium Jumping records, but one section shows the company also earned $400,000 more than it spent.

In addition to low tourist tax revenues, the council is concerned it may have missed up to $2.8-million in uncollected room taxes last year, a study shows. Gray stressed that those figures are tentative.

Instead of endorsing the proposal, the commission asked the tourist council to decide on a case-by-case basis whether to support events that bring in more money than is spent. Platt voted against that proposal.

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