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Cover 08/14

How the tourism industry and politicians keep Florida’s tax money from being spent where we need it most

State law does not allow tourist tax dollars to do anything but promote more tourism. The tourism industry wants it to make sure it stays that way

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Photo: , License: N/A

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A few years ago, out in the farthest reaches of the Panhandle, in tiny Okaloosa County, population 190,083, Mark Bellinger hatched a plan. It wasn’t a good or smart plan, and it was very much an illegal plan, but it was a plan nonetheless. It was August 2010, a few months after the BP oil spill, and Bellinger was the new head of the county’s Tourism Development Council, a position of some importance given the area’s reliance on the tourists drawn to the pristine white sand beaches of Fort Walton Beach and Destin.

Bellinger, in charge of drumming up tourism, decided a promotional campaign was in order. And so he asked the county’s ad agency to purchase for him the campaign’s ostensible centerpiece, a $48,000 Porsche. The agency complied, and billed the county under the line item “Prize for 2010-2011 Internet/Viral Video Contest.”

In early 2012 he had the same agency purchase a 40-foot, $710,000 Marquis yacht, purportedly for another marketing effort. He also allegedly embezzled $747,000 from the county’s BP settlement to buy a house.

The yacht was his unraveling. A few days after the county finally noticed this large, unapproved expenditure, Bellinger resigned. A few days after that, with the sheriff’s office coming to arrest him, he committed suicide by overdose.

The scandal made headlines, but its aftermath had ramifications for every tourist trap in the state, Orlando included, and elucidated an equation we’ve been grappling with for decades: balancing a powerful industry’s avarice with a struggling community’s needs. In this equation, at least in Florida, the industry almost always wins and the community almost always loses.

This was certainly the case in Okaloosa County. The ensuing state audit found that, over a two-year period, county officials had shuffled $2.5 million from hotel taxes to pay for lifeguards and beach patrols. Tourists, the thinking went, appreciate safe beaches, and paying for them out of the county’s general fund meant fewer cops and firefighters for everyone else, so why not?

It was hardly a salacious revelation, but it was still illegal. Under state law, tourism taxes are set aside for tourism promotion, and lifeguards and beach patrols, though they make things better for tourists, don’t count. So earlier this year, Okaloosa County officials beseeched the Legislature to let them use tourism taxes for beach safety, arguing that they shouldn’t have to break the law to do something that accords so perfectly with common sense.

The state’s tourism industry – a potent, influential group that spends millions of dollars a year to keep local and state politicians in line – balked. “Now the Pandora’s box opens to every conceivable use,” Gregg Nicklaus, president of the Sirata Beach Resort and Conference Center in St. Pete Beach, told the Tampa Bay Times. If the state lets counties spend tourist taxes on lifeguards, what’s next? Schools? Public transportation? Police? “Our industry has, for the most part, been united in opposing the expansion of the use of these tax dollars that were meant for marketing and marketing only.”

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