Tough Decisions on Tourist Monies

Guest Correspondence

This is a pivotal time for the Tourist Development Tax and its use. It involves a lot of money and the Board of County Commissioners will have critical decisions to make about the use of this tax in the upcoming months. 

Last fiscal year, we collected $21,344,166.92. This fiscal year, in the first six months, collections are already up 12.2 percent from last year. Decisions on how to spend this money have incredible ramifications for our economic development, which is heavily dependent on tourism.

The Tourist Development Tax is a tax on tourists. It is also frequently called a “bed tax.” It is a tax on visitors to our area that stay in overnight accommodations for six months or less. According to the Florida Department of Revenue website, this tax can be used for “capital construction of tourist-related facilities, tourist promotion, and beach and shoreline maintenance.”

The Florida Department of Revenue chart on counties tax rates shows that Sarasota gets a 5-percent tax on overnight stays. This tax is in addition to sales tax. The Sarasota Tax Collector’s Office indicates that our money is spent on “promotion, beach maintenance and re-nourishment, the arts, the sports stadium, and the Suncoast Aquatic Center.” 

Outside of beach re-nourishment and maintenance, the expenditure of these dollars almost always involves public private partnerships, whether that be with Visit Sarasota County, a sports team or a non-profit. 

In Sarasota County, we have a 13-member advisory board to the County Commission called the Tourist Development Council. This board is appointed by the Board of County Commissioners and according to Sarasota County’s TDC web page they “recommend tourism policy to the Board and oversees the use of all tourist development tax revenues collected in Sarasota County pursuant to Florida law.”

This week, Visit Sarasota County presented its budget to the TDC and noted that Pinellas, Lee and Collier counties all spend more per lodging unit in marketing dollars than Sarasota. We had a 23-percent increase in hotel rooms in the past two years. Visit Sarasota County believes they can add over $2 million more to the tax collections next year in Sarasota County. Their 2019 proposed budget is $6,917,000 with an additional allocation of $675,000 for the under 23 Rowing Championship. This is about a million more than last year.

TDC members expressed concern over marketing dollars. Conversations evolved around the increase in rooms and the possibility of room rate drops.    

Enter Mote Marine Aquarium. Mote has now also approached the county for $20 million in capital funding towards their $130 million state-of-the-art facility proposed at Nathan Benderson Park. This week, the County Administrator identified the funding source as Tourist Development Tax money.  Mote, a research and tourist destination for our visitors, is a known commodity and has a vision for our future, leveraging the traffic from Interstate-75 to attract visitors to stop here in Sarasota County.

However, the TDC Chair indicated he was approached by three organizations alone the morning of the TDC meeting about accessing this money as well. Maintaining existing tourism resources and facilities is also a variable.

No doubt, the County Commission has tough decisions ahead as to where to invest this money.  The issues of marketing investment, tourism capital investment and facility maintenance is an important discussion and the public needs to start weighing in now on how to spend these important monies.

Christine Robinson is executive director of The Argus Foundation.

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