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Aquariums now eligible for bed tax funds
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CLEARWATER – Pinellas County Commissioners agreed to changes in the Tourist Development Plan May 6 that clears the way for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium to apply for a portion of bed tax distributions.

Clearwater voters approved a referendum Nov. 5, 2013, supporting Clearwater Marine Aquarium’s plans to build a new $160 million aquarium where City Hall currently stands.

CMA plans to pay the city $7.5 million for construction of a new city hall, and it will pay to demolish the current city hall and build the new aquarium. The city will retain ownership of the land and grant a 60-year lease to the CMA to operate the aquarium.

The state legislature approved $2 million in funding for the aquarium in the 2014 budget, which still must be approved by Gov. Rick Scott. To get money from Pinellas County’s Tourist Development (bed) Tax proceeds, the county’s plan had to be amended, which commissioners did May 6.

Now CMA can apply for funds the same as other facilities, such as sports stadiums, covered by the plan.

Another plan amendment increases the maximum amount of available annual funding from $1 million to $4.5 million, or ľ of 1 percent of the bed tax, whichever is greater. The amount a facility must provide was changed from a $2 to $1 match to a $1 to $1 match, and the annual cap of $500,000 a year per facility was removed.

The commission also approved new capital funding guidelines agreed on by the commission and the Tourist Development Council during an April 1 meeting.

Commission Chair Karen Seel said she wanted to make sure the guidelines allowed for funding multiple projects, not just one. She responded to Commissioner Charlie Justice’s question about flexibility by saying that anything could be funded as long as it fit within the state statutes. The TDC plan specifies the allowable uses.

Facilities that are granted bed tax funding now will be reimbursed after the completion of projects, something that should not affect their ability to bond, said Michael Zas, senior assistant county attorney. He said reimbursements versus paying lump sums would allow projects to set construction milestones.

CMA isn’t the only facility in line for bed tax money. In addition, commissioners have expressed concern to allocate more for beach nourishment due to shrinking pots of money from the federal and state governments.

Pinellas County collects a 5 percent Tourist Development Tax on all overnight tourism accommodations in the county, which is levied on customers of hotels, motels, condominiums, campgrounds, apartments and private homes that rent accommodations for less than six months.

In other business, the commission:

• Approved a two-year contract with NDL LLC of Lutz for landscape maintenance services, including mowing, for $1.78 million. Pricing, terms and conditions are based on an existing contract with Pasco County.

• Approved a resolution approving Housing Finance Authority of Pinellas County’s plans to finance a multifamily residential housing project through bonds in a principal amount not to exceed $5 million. Two sites located in Clearwater are included in the project. The first is at 1000 North Keene Road and the second is at 2657 State Road 590.
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