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Ideas may improve tourist tax collection

An audit has found that clerk's office staff should improve money handling and that the county could better publicize the 2 percent tax.

The Clerk of the Circuit Court's auditor hopes she has found ways to improve administration of the local tourist tax.

The tax is a 2 percent charge on short-term accommodations. It's a common line item for any hotel or motel guest.

But the tax applies to all lodging that lasts six months or less. So people who rent out a room in their house, or the house itself, are supposed to charge the renter and remit the tax to the clerk's office.

The money _ about $290,000 last fiscal year _ goes to the Tourist Development Council, which uses it to drum up tourism business. The clerk's office is responsible for collecting the money.

The clerk's office recently took a look inside its own house. The internal review showed that staff must improve money handling.

Specifically, internal auditor Kathy Davis suggested that staff endorse checks immediately and deposit them quickly. Staff had been placing unendorsed checks in an unlocked drawer.

Davis also said the clerk's finance division should train staff to better review accounts and make sure the ledger of payers is kept up to date.

Finance officials attributed missteps to staff turnover. The staff accepted the recommendations and has implemented most of them already.

This audit was far less eventful than the one conducted in 1995. That audit, the first conducted since the county began collecting the tax in 1986, found more than $8,000 in past-due taxes.

This time around, the auditing staff found less than $1,000 in back taxes due.

Davis also said the county could step up efforts at publicizing the tax and informing people who may not know they need to pay it. Suggestions from the report include taking out newspaper advertisements, especially during prime rental season; and adding a link on the county's Web site to a site that provides tax information.

The county's tourism program director, Mary Craven, said she will ask the local builders and Realtors associations for help letting their members know who must pay the tax.

In other tourism news:

BILLBOARDS: The Tourist Development Council offered tourism businesses the chance to buy billboard space on Interstate 75 and the Florida Turnpike. But the response has been underwhelming.

Only two companies have expressed interest in buying space; there is room for up to 12 companies. The cost _ between about $1,300 and about $1,600 per year _ might have been too prohibitive.

In any event, Craven said the idea is on hold for now and may never come to fruition.

CANOE TRAIL: A ribbon cutting ceremony for the Citrus County canoe trail is scheduled for April 21 at the Homosassa Riverside Resort, 5297 S Cherokee Way. The time is still to be announced.

The 28-mile coastal trail provides markers to lead paddlers between the Crystal and Chassahowitzka rivers.

GUIDE COURSE STARTING: Central Florida Community College will start offering its eco-guide course April 23. Students will learn about eco-tourism in general and about Citrus offerings specifically. The class will meet every other Monday for all-day sessions.

For information, call the college at 746-6721.

FAIR REPORT: Citrus tourism leaders offered mixed reviews of their time at the Florida State Fair.

The Citrus booth, unlike many other booths, was staffed all the time. More than 400 people stopped by to enter their names in a contest, and many of them _ as well as some others who didn't register for the game _ picked up brochures.

Still, Craven said she wasn't sure whether she would recommend returning to the fair next year.

_ Jim Ross writes about tourism in Citrus County. Reach him at 860-7302 or by e-mail at jrosssptimes.com.

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