Pinellas bed tax revamp may fund new Dali building but not baseball stadium

11/16/10 Kate Bradshaw
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Every hotel, resort, and R.V. park in Pinellas County charges guests a five percent sales tax for every night, as long as the duration is under six months. Today the Pinellas County Commission discussed changes to that tax that may mean more dollars will go to a key attraction. Assistant County Attorney Dennis Long says the tax is crucial.

"Each cent generated approximately $4.8 million or we will expect it to generate about that much in 2010."

The tourist development tax, often called the bed tax, nets the county more than $20 million annually. It funds ad campaigns aimed at attracting visitors. It also helps pay the debt servicing costs for Tropicana Field. And, if the commissioners approve changes to the tax code, it will help the Dali Museum pay for its new waterfront facility. Long says there’s one attraction the tax is currently not slated to fund.

"I want to make sure it's very clear that at no time has any plan, request, or proposal been submitted to finance a professional sports franchise facility, a spring training facility or convention center and no such plan is now pending or been considered either by this board or by the Tourist Development Council over the last year that this effort has been undertaken."

There has been speculation that the tax might help fund a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays, whose Tropicana Field contract is up in 2027, though the team has indicated it might leave before then. The Tourism Development Council began looking at the bed tax when Salvador Dali Museum representatives asked if the tax could be help them pay for their new state of the art waterfront facility, slated to open in early 2011. County Commissioner Ken Welch says the Dali is vital draw for the county.

"I'm very supportive of the Dali, I think that their impact is well documented. Folks come to the area just for the Dali and it creates a tremendous economic impact."

Approximately forty percent of the bed tax funds ad campaigns to attract out-of-towners. Speaking during public comment, Largo businessman Tom Rask says he’s never seen proof that such campaigns, let alone the Dali, bring in much of a return on the county’s investment.

"I call this faith based tourism marketing. You just have faith that it's working out. Well, it's not and where it's going to go is that at the state level people are going to start asking statutorily that the tourism tax be cut back."

But Hank Hine, the Dali Museum’s director, had some stats on hand.

"They have done extensive academic analysis of this basically based on exit polls of visitors to the Dali. 'why did you come to the area?' was the question and over 60 percent were answering 'we came expressly to see the Dali museum'. Those people are from out of the area."

Another major destination for bed tax dollars is beach renourishment projects. If you’ve been out to any Pinellas Beaches in recent months, you might have noticed thick pipes and backhoes along the shore. They’re part of a countywide effort to keep the Pinellas beaches wide despite a current that perpetually carries sand off shore. They also receive federal funding. Commissioner Ken Welch says he’s concerned that a ban on federal earmarks might mean less money for beach renourishment.

"You know the focus has been on any possible new stadium, but that still has to come back to this board and go through a whole set of negotiations and agreements. It's beach renourishment and the fact that earmarks, due to the last election, are going away. And that is the lifeblood of this tourism based economy."

Bed tax dollars will go to the Dali when the county stops paying for the Trop’s debt service in October 2015. Commissioner Nancy Bostock says she’s concerned about locking in funds five years in advance.

"The penny money for Gulf Boulevard is what comes to mind, first of all. Did you all talk about that situation? That this action would be potentially putting the 2015 commission or TDC or some combination of them in that same kind of situation where there are these future monies but they're obligated. People in 2015 know what the economy is what the revenues are what the TDC needs are versus people five years before committing this money. Did you all discuss that dynamic?"

Commissioner Karen Seel says she’s confident that a more streamlined code will free up money that’s been tied up in the past.

"We've had the special events, the large events, the Grand Prix, et cetera, and I just really feel strongly that there needs to be a better process and better deliverables as far as heads in beds and so going forward this has to strengthen that entire process, I hope, so that we're very deliberate in how we pick and choose who and what we fund."

The Pinellas County Commission is slated to take the revamped rules for the bed tax, which was first adopted in 1978, in a public hearing November 30 at the county building in Downtown Clearwater.

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