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Proposed tax hike worries some Anna Maria hotel owners

BRADENTON - A proposal to increase Manatee County's tourist development tax is stirring opposition from some hotel owners on Anna Maria Island.

Owners of small resorts say increasing the tourism tax to 5 percent in this economy will cause tourists to limit their vacations and spending on the island.

However, the Tourist Development Council recommended the 1-cent levy to the Manatee County Board of Commissioners so additional funds could be raised for the marketing budget.

“When that tax is raised, we are at the front line of having to explain it and collect it,” said Ashok Sawe, owner of Palm Tree Villas in Holmes Beach. “When the tax goes up, it limits our ability on what we charge for accommodations.”

Manatee County collects 4 cents from every dollar guests spend at hotels, resorts and other commercial lodging facilities, including RV campgrounds and condominiums, with less than a six-month lease.

Manatee County commissioners will vote on the tax April 7 and, if passed, the 5 percent tax would be implemented in May.

Sawe and three other hotel owners fear tourists will book shorter stays or vacation elsewhere if the tax is increased.

“This is a bad idea,” Sawe said. “Economic times are really tough for everybody. This is not a time we increase the cost for our customers coming to the county. This is probably the worst time you could do that.”

Maree Rodgers, owner of Anna Maria Pirates Den, agrees.

“It doesn’t seem to be a sensible thing to be considering at this time,” Rodgers said. “Last time they brought an increase in tax, we had to lower our rates to absorb the 1 percent.”

However, the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau could collect an additional $1.2 million with the tax increase.

The Tourist Development Council says the increase will not only allow more advertising and marketing of the area, but will help give the bureau’s reserves a much-needed cushion.

The visitors bureau has about $2 million in its reserves, of which $1 million needs to be set aside for disaster recovery expenses, which would be used to promote the area after a major storm.

Larry White, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, was not available for comment Wednesday.

At previous meetings regarding tourism taxes, White said the reserves were in danger of being depleted by 2011, and marketing funds could follow suit by 2012 due to the TDC’s obligation to subsidize the Manatee County Convention and Civic Center.

The tourism board was obligated to pick up a $900,000 annual tab on the civic center in 2007 when Manatee County’s budget needed tightening.

Still, Christy Krauss, owner of Island Garden Villas, says it is unfair to shift the burden of collecting extra revenue onto hoteliers.

“It seems like when they’re looking for a place to raise revenues they look out here like we’re a cash cow,” Krauss said. “People want to know bottom line what it is going to cost me. If it’s more than what they can afford, they’ll go shopping elsewhere.”

David Teitelbaum, owner of Tortuga Inn, Tradewinds Resort and SeaSide Inn Beach Resort on Anna Maria, supports the extra tax, saying the tax increase will benefit the tourism-related businesses because the money will allow the visitors bureau to continue promoting the area with the help of its three public relations firms.

“I have three hotels myself, I’d be one of the loudest voices saying ‘no don’t do it,’ if it was going to hurt us,” Teitelbaum said. “We need this marketing program. It’s really vital for the area and to Manatee County.”

Manatee County’s tourism tax budget this fiscal year is $5.4 million, of which $2.3 million — or 43 percent — has been allocated to marketing.

Jeff Gerry, manager of the White Sands Beach Resort on Holmes Beach, said he fears the extra cent will drive tourists to other markets.

“If they think the price is too high they’re going to go somewhere else,” Gerry said.

If Manatee County does increase the tax, the 5 percent bed tax would match Pinellas and Hillborough counties’ tax rate. Sarasota and Collier counties have a 4 percent bed tax.

County Commissioner Carol Whitmore, however, said the tourism tax increase isn’t going to deter vacationers from our area.

“That’s not a plausible argument for me,” Whitmore said. “In these times right now we don’t have a choice. It’s either we keep up the great job we’ve done in marketing and publicizing Manatee County or we don’t.”

TAX RATES

A look at the tourism development tax rates in counties along the west coast.

Manatee: 4 percent, increased in 2003

Sarasota: 4 percent, increased in 2007

Pinellas: 5 percent, increased in 2005

Hillsborough: 5 percent, increased in 1995

n Collier County: 4 percent, increased in 2005

- Herald staff

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