Special Reports

Spill drags down tax revenues, officials warn

ST. PETERSBURG — Officials warned Gov. Charlie Crist on Tuesday that one of the adverse economic effects of the Gulf oil spill will be fewer tax dollars for local government, as property, sales and tourist “bed taxes” decline.

After suffering through years of recession, foreclosure and tax cuts, the spill’s negative effects on tourism will mean even more belt-tightening at the local level, they predicted.

“It couldn’t have come at a worse time,” Kelly Kirschner, the mayor of the City of Sarasota, said during a round-table discussion moderated by the governor at SRI International Marine Technology Program headquarters at St. Petersburg.

Information from the state’s tourism marketing agency indicated Florida is already facing a 10 percent decline in tourism due to fears of oil pollution from BP’s runaway Deepwater Horizon well, Kirschner said.

He added that a side effect of the decline will be lower proceeds from the “bed tax,” which is a tourist tax on all accommodations rented for six months or less.

Bed taxes serve as the primary source of financing for convention and visitors’ bureau marketers, charged with attracting tourists to the state.

“We are terribly concerned about the impact to bed tax; Clearwater Beach is the single largest source of bed tax in Pinellas County,” said Bob Clifford, president and chief executive officer for the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce.

“We’re also concerned about property tax, and the impact it’s going to have on city government and Pinellas County as a whole,” Clifford said.

“As we work through this catastrophe, we see a slippery slope, where the revenues generated by these taxes are going to start to fade,” he said.

With a huge oil spill threatening the state, buyers are backing out of real estate deals, Clifford said. When the property goes back on the market, it carries a lesser dollar amount than it did before, dragging down property tax revenue, he said.

Crist responded that the “responsible party” should be BP, and money to make up the losses should come from the company.

Kirschner pointedly urged the governor to press for maximum fines if negligence is proven to have been a factor in the cause of the disaster, which began with a fire and explosion off Louisiana last spring.

Florida also suffers from an inaccurate picture of the state presented by the national media. So far, oil has blackened only a small portion of its northwest coastline, but that’s not the message that’s getting out, they said.

“Negative media is what’s killing the west coast of Florida, it’s not the oil,” said Frank Chivas, who operates a number of restaurants in the St. Petersburg area.

When asked why no one from Manatee County had attended the roundtable, a spokesman for the governor’s office said, “Unfortunately, no one from Manatee County was invited to the roundtable this morning. As the governor continues to travel the state and meet with various stakeholders, I’m certain there will be additional opportunities in the Manatee/Sarasota counties.”

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031.