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Increase in tourist tax suggested

Visitors to Hernando County may face stiffer taxes early next year.

Under state law, Hernando County commissioners could increase the tourist tax to 3 percent, from its current 2 percent, in February _ more than three years since Hernando began levying the charges on hotel and motel rooms and short-term rentals.

At least one county commissioner thinks that may be a good idea.

Commissioner June Ester wants the county's Tourist Development Council to consider the merits of raising the tourist tax at its meeting Aug. 15.

Increasing the tax on visitors' room bills to 3 percent would generate an additional $75,000 a year. And some of that money could help defray the county's costs for maintaining Rogers Park, Pine Island, Jenkins Creek and other parks and beaches frequented by tourists, Ester said.

"I can see where it can have some advantages," said Ester, chairwoman of the tourist council, which advises commissioners. "It would (have) less impact on the general revenue fund. . . . When you go the beach and can't get in because it's full of cars from out of the county, at least you would know that some of the monies (tourists) would be spending would go toward improving the beach or the park."

Raising the tourist tax is just the latest among a host of ideas _ including charging registration fees to people who play organized sports _ commissioners have contemplated to help balance the county's books without an increase in the property tax rate.

County officials say they need $3.4-million in new money to balance the 1996-97 budget.

Asked whether her suggestion of raising the tourist tax is a way of dodging the politically tougher question of whether to raise property taxes, Ester said: "I don't think so. . . . It would be a way to help the tourist business pay for tourists."

The county collects about $150,000 a year from the 2 percent tourist tax. Revenue from the tax helps pay for, among other things, tourist events, advertising and marketing of the county, and the operations of the welcome center at Interstate 75 and State Road 50.

If commissioners approve an increase in the tourist tax, it is not known how much of the extra revenue could pay for upkeep and improvements at county parks and beaches.

Some would pay for additional promotional advertising and marketing.

Because of state restrictions, commissioners could use the tourist tax revenues to maintain parks "only if they can prove people are coming here for that purpose," said Michael Lanterman, Hernando County audit services director.

The money could not be used to pay for any administrative costs associated with the parks, such as the salaries of lifeguards, Lanterman said.

Last year, commissioners decided to eliminate all 15 lifeguard positions at Pine Island, Hernando Beach Park and Rogers Park as a way to balance the county's budget. But after several complaints, they agreed to keep the positions and raise parking fees instead.

Making tourists pay more for their stay in Hernando may be politically popular, but some hotel owners aren't too keen on the idea.

J. Patel, manager of the Comfort Inn in Weeki Wachee, fears that raising the tax would hurt business.

"I think what we have, 2 percent, is enough," he said, adding that customers already complain about having to pay a total of 8 percent in sales and tourist taxes.

Fran Baird, owner of Hernando Beach Motel & Condos, said she would not oppose an increase.

"I think our tourist tax dollars have helped promote Hernando County," said Baird, a former tourist council member.

Spending tourist tax dollars on parks makes sense, she said.

"If we're going to promote Hernando to get (tourists) here, we need something for them to do," she said.

"One of the big things we need in Hernando Beach is more parking. People can't find parking to put in their boat trailers."