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Pasco Commissioner Mariano pans tourism plan

DADE CITY - Pasco County's proposed tourism development plan drew a zero stars rating Tuesday from Commissioner Jack Mariano who complained about escalating overhead costs and suggested spending ideas that failed to include beach improvements.

"I'm disgusted with this whole plan,'' Mariano said after the county's tourism staff presented the three-year plan.

Mariano echoed criticism from the advisory Tourist Development Council, which previously objected to a new formula that sets aside 40 percent of the tourist tax proceeds for salaries, benefits, indirect costs and office operations. Currently, 26 percent of the tourism budget is earmarked for administrative overhead.

The jump is attributed to an increased staff and a revised formula for how the tourism office is billed for staff time from other county departments.

Mariano also objected to the proposed tourism projects, which include $8.5 million for an indoor sports facility at Wiregrass Ranch, $1 million for gateway signs welcoming visitors to the county, $1.25 million for a nature center targeting bicyclists and pedestrians using county trails and $250,000 for a cyclist-friendly visitor center.

"When I see you have no money allocated for beach restoration... I just think we're way off track,'' Mariano said, pointing to the tourism potential offered by the county-owned and privately operated SunWest Park in northwest Pasco.

The tourism development plan through 2020 proposes increasing the tourist tax each of the next three years until it reaches 5 percent in the 2019-20 fiscal year. If approved by the County Commission, it would provide nearly $3 million annually in tourist tax revenue, including $2.3 million for marketing, promotions and for construction of future capital projects.

The proposed tourism plan is scheduled for a Sept. 27 public hearing and a commission vote afterward. Adoption of the plan does not trigger the tourist tax increase, which requires a separate public hearing and vote. Mariano voted against scheduling the hearing.