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Pinellas celebrates record tourism
Still unofficial: County qualifies as high-impact tourist destination
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Visitors and locals enjoy a day on Treasure Island Beach. Pinellas County officials are celebrating a record year for tourism.
As of Jan. 15, the Pinellas County Tax Collector had two more weeks to take in tourist development taxes for 2013. But officials were already celebrating.

For certification by the Florida Department of Revenue as a high-impact tourist destination, a county must collect more than $30 million in tourist development taxes, which is equal to $600 million in sales for a calendar year.

Pinellas County has exceeded the $30 million by nearly $41,000.

“Therefore, unofficially, Pinellas County has already met the certification requirement,” Brenna Haggar, manager of public affairs for the tax collector’s office, said in an email Jan. 17.

Haggar added that collections from the tourist development tax, aka the bed tax, equal more than $600.8 million in sales for 2013.

The 5 percent bed tax is collected on accommodations rented for less than six months. The money funds the Tourist Development Council and Convention and Visitors Bureau. Per the funding formula approved for 2014, 59 percent of the tax collected will go for marketing and operations, 18 percent to debt service, 8 percent to beach nourishment, 1 percent to the tax collector and 14 percent to reserves.

With final tax collection for 2013 still pending, David Downing, deputy director of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, pointed out “the county is more than $2 million ahead of the previous calendar year record set in 2012.”

Downing said the economic impact of tourism is estimated at $8.26 billion for 2013, an increase of about $500 million from 2012.

“While national economic indicators predict modest growth in the coming year, VSPC is expecting steady growth in 2014 from the UK and Germany and strong growth from Latin American markets,” Downing said in a Jan. 16 message to “industry partners.”

High-impact tourist destination

Counties certified as a high-impact tourist destination can collect an additional percent in taxes. Pinellas County officials have not yet made any decisions about increasing the bed tax to 6 percent.

In a joint meeting of County Commissioners and the Tourist Development Council on Nov. 12, 2013, they talked about the pros and cons of increasing the tax. Approval of the tax increase would start with a recommendation from the Tourist Development Council to the County Commission. Commission approval has to be by at least five of the seven members.

Pinellas will become the sixth county in Florida designated as high-impact tourist destination, joining Broward, Monroe, Osceola, Orange and Walton counties. Designation as a high-impact tourist designation is permanent.

State rules dictate how bed tax money can be spent with different uses authorized per tax percent. Pinellas County has an established plan that specifies allowable uses of its bed tax. A change in the tax levy would likely require plan amendments.

There was a suggestion that the sixth cent be held in reserve to help pay for beach nourishment if funding from state and federal sources continued to decline.

A committee, headed by Commission Chair Karen Seel, is currently working on a plan to establish criteria for funding requests. Some of the recent funding requests include the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, a BMX facility in Oldsmar and a spring training facility in Dunedin. In addition, there is the uncertainty of whether the Tampa Bay Rays will need a new stadium in Pinellas County in the future.
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