Pinellas to leave Tourist Development Plan as-is for now

Pinellas County Commission Chair Karen Seel, who also serves as chair of the Tourist Development Council, scheduled a joint meeting of the two governing bodies to discuss the possibility of amending the Tourist Development Plan to allow for more uses of the county’s bed tax revenue.

CLEARWATER — At a recent joint meeting of the Board of Pinellas County commissioners and the Tourist Development Council, everyone agreed on at least one thing. Bed tax doesn’t bring in enough to pay for all the county’s tourism needs.

Karen Seel, chair of the commission and the TDC, called the June 20 meeting to talk about possibly amending the Tourist Development Plan to allow for changes enacted by the state legislature in 2018. State statute now allows tourist development tax money, aka bed tax, to be spent on estuary and lagoon improvements, and public facilities.

Pinellas charges a 6% tax on all rentals of six months or less in lodging facilities, such as hotels, motels, RV parks and condominiums. In fiscal year 2018, the county collected nearly $60 million in bed taxes.

The current Tourist Development Plan requires that 60% of that money go toward operations for the Convention and Visitors Bureau, and promoting and advertising, including funding for marketing of special events.

The remaining 40% helps pay for beach nourishment, as well as capital funding and debt service for publicly owned sports facilities and other specific types of facilities that benefit tourism, and professional sports and convention center capital costs.

Examples of some of the capital projects funded at least partially with bed tax dollars include Tropicana Field, Clearwater’s spring training facilities for the Philadelphia Phillies and Dunedin’s facilities for the Toronto Blue Jays. Non-sports-related projects include money for the Dali Museum, Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Ruth Eckerd Hall and the American Craftsman Museum.

Now, with changes to the state statute, other facilities that increase tourist-related business activities could be funded, if legal parameters are met and a study proves it truly would benefit tourism.

Public facilities means major capital improvements that have a life expectancy of five years or more, including but not limited to, transportation, sanitary sewer, solid waste, drainage, potable water and pedestrian facilities.

Some want to consider the use of bed tax to help fund transit needs since tourists add to traffic congestion on the county’s roadways. Tourists also expect better transit systems to get them where they want to go.

The County Commission has scheduled a work session on July 18 to talk about transportation and affordable housing. County Administrator Barry Burton, Forward Pinellas Executive Director Whit Blanton and PSTA CEO Brad Miller have been working together to try to find funding solutions for the county’s transportation needs.

One of the reasons, Seel called the joint meeting with the commission and the TDC was to see if there was any interest in using bed tax money for transit or transportation.

According to a 2018 survey done by Visit St. Pete-Clearwater, the county’s marketing agency, the top three attractions visitors say would enhance their experience is less congestion/traffic, more public transportation options, and cheaper and more parking. More than 6% used public transportation during their stay and they spent about $33 a day on transportation-related expenses. In 2016, 57% of visitors used a rental car.

Improved transit could help reduce traffic congestion and the demand for parking. Current transit options for tourists include the Suncoast Beach Trolley, Jolley Trolley, hotel corporate passes and special events services, such as the free park and ride offered by PSTA and the city of Clearwater during spring break.

Officials expressed some interest in exploring the possibility of using bed tax money for transit, but most preferred to wait and see if a project worth considering made itself available before changing the Tourist Development Plan.

There was no support for changing the 60%-40% funding split to make more money available.

TDC member Keith Overton, president of the Tradewinds Resort on St. Pete Beach, said projects that had never been considered before might come forward now because they weren’t allowed in the past. He suggested that everyone keep an open mind and “at least listen and not limit the options.”

TDC member and Dunedin Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski favors changing the Tourist Development Plan now so everything would be in place if a worthy project came forward. She also said the best way to fund the county’s transit needs was the use of multiple sources, including looking at other taxes.

Clearwater Mayor and TDC member George Cretekos reminded everyone that the amount of bed tax money available really wasn’t that much compared to the potential cost of transit projects. He worries that if the community hears there is a “fresh pot of money,” everyone will expect it to solve all the problems.

“It won’t even put a dent in it,” he said.

Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch agreed with Cretekos, as did TDC member Tony Satterfield, vice president of operations at Alden Suites on St. Pete Beach. Satterfield is concerned about increasing the uses of bed tax money.

“It cannot be the solution for everything,” he said, adding that he might consider a small project that enhanced transit.

Seel said looking at all the capital improvement projects currently being paid for with bed tax money and those under consideration, it was a “slippery slope” to think about expanding the uses of the tax.

She also said everyone had to think about what would happen if there were another red tide outbreak or other catastrophe that could decrease bed tax collections. Seel disagrees with Bujalski about amending the Tourist Development Plan now, but agrees with the mayor that multiple sources of funding needs to be considered to pay for transit improvements.

In the end, the consensus was to wait and see if anything came up that would necessitate a change in the plan. The current Tourist Development Plan was adopted on Nov. 24, 2015. It must be reevaluated in five years, which will be in November 2020.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.