CLEARWATER — The numbers are in: Pinellas County surpassed a $30-million milestone in bed taxes last year, placing it among the state’s top destinations, tourism officials announced Wednesday.
That could clear the way for several million dollars in extra funds toward beach restoration, aquariums or sports centers in the coming years if county commissioners opt to raise the tax on hotel stays from 5 to 6 percent.
Exceeding more than $600 million in hotel sales in the 2013 calendar year triggers a state rule that allows the county to raise the tax on overnight stays by an extra 1 percent.
Pinellas joins only five other Florida destinations that have achieved the state distinction as a high tourism impact county, including the mega resorts of South Florida and Orlando.
Visit St. Pete/Clearwater director D.T. Minich predicted the county would hit the mark in 2013, but the county tax collector confirmed it Wednesday morning in an email during the monthly Tourist Development Council meeting in Clearwater.
“It has not gone unnoticed around the state,” Minich told members of the council.
“To be in that category now with other mega destinations in the state, it’s a big deal. It’s a big honor to be in that category with them,” he added after the meeting.
Hotel sales, occupancy and daily rates surpassed all previous records last year, with bed tax revenue up 18 percent over the county’s pre-recession record, he said.
Once the tax collections are certified by the Florida Department of Revenue, the council must decide whether to recommend the additional 1 percent hike. Ultimately, five of seven county commissioners must vote for the increase before it’s implemented.
Commissioners mulled over the proposal at a November workshop, but did not indicate whether they would support an increase.
The extra revenue can be used for construction or renovation of publicly-owned sports stadiums, beach renourishment and promotion of tourism.
More than half of the county’s bed tax dollars are spent on marketing and promoting tourism. A sizeable chunk is also devoted to beaches and big construction projects.
Many groups are vying for a share of an extra $6 million in bed taxes that will be freed up after the county makes final payments on construction bonds for Tropicana Field in 2015.
Before Wednesday’s meeting, the city of Oldsmar already had filed a formal request for bed tax funds this year to build an Olympic-style BMX track. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium has voiced interest in future funds for the construction of a new downtown attraction.
A committee of TDC members and commissioners will be assembled over the next month to set priorities for extra bed tax revenue.
A survey last year found that 14 of the 16 members favor spending more bed tax money on improving the county’s beaches.
TradeWinds resort CEO Tim Bogott, who serves on the TDC, said additional funds could be used to improve the county’s main beach thoroughfare, Gulf Boulevard.
“It gives us the potential to make what we have even better,” Bogott said.
The council could also opt to keep the bed tax at its current 5 percent.
While Osceola and Orange counties have raised their tax to 6 percent, the other three high tourism impact destinations, Walton, Monroe and Broward counties, have kept their tax at 5 percent or lower.
Broward County enjoys a distinction as the “nation’s lowest tax meetings destination,” which could be lost if hotel taxes get too high, Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, said in an email.