published: Friday, October 19, 2012
County straightens out TDC accounting
By BARRY FOSTER
SEBRING - Highlands County commissioners Tuesday voted to amend the plan for allocating tourist tax dollars. The county's Tourist Development Commission has come under fire in recent years for not spending the money as promised in percentages that were held out as a tourist development plan when it was first offered to the voters a decade ago.
Marketed under the slogan "Summer Tourists Make Cents," the notion was that money taken from short-term stays at a wide range of facilities ranging from hotels and motels to fish camps and even private homes would be used during the summer months to help bolster the sagging summertime economy.
At Tuesday's meeting, attorney for the Highlands County Board of County Commission Ross Macbeth allowed that the percentages may not have been kept, but finding out how much had been misspent or misappropriated was virtually impossible due to the labyrinth of different forms of administration and a total lack of accurate record keeping.
In an effort to reconcile the spending, Macbeth explained a formula had been created and approved by the TDC to redistribute $332,338.64 remaining in the TDC's account collected by different means over the past nine years.
Under the so-called "Reallocation Plan," $93,420.39 would be put in an account established to promote and advertise to attract tourists to Highlands County in the off-season. Another $163,277.97 of the remaining fund balance would go to promote and advertise arts and culture events with $75,640.27 pointed toward promoting and advertising local events.
What constitutes "off season" has been a moving target since the tourist tax passed by a 521-vote margin in 2002. Following the narrow approval by voters, the idea of "summer" tourists was enlarged to include what were termed "shoulder months," increasing the definition of "off-season" time from April through December. A requirement for verified overnight stays also was added for any event that wanted funding. Long-term events also were excluded for eligibility for funding.
During the discussion, Macbeth told commissioners that in prior years it was felt that the funds were being appropriately expended under the percentages as designated.
However, it has been shown that administrative expenses, including wage and benefit packages for TDC staff, exceeded the 29 percent figure that is part of the plan.
Macbeth told commissioners they could dispense with the intricacies of accounting for the monies simply by "authorizing the expenditure of funds for purposes that are authorized by the statute," explaining that the statute has expenditure provisions that are broader than the current TDC plan approved by voters.
That would take a super-majority, or four of the commission's five votes.
Another suggested method to meet the percentages is raising the tourist tax assessment from 2 percent to 3 percent. A motion to that effect reportedly already has been passed by a majority vote of the TDC board. That is slated to come to the commission some time after the November general elections.
The TDC has been under the scrutiny of Florida's Joint Legislative Auditing Committee. However, during the meeting, interim County Administrator June Fisher produced an email from that board accepting the county's explanations and saying they had "no further questions at this time."
Citizen Bill Youngman asked commissioners to look at figures showing that revenue from the Tourist Development Commission had dwindled nearly each year since the inception of the tax. The numbers, based on taxes assessed against short-term stays, ranged from a high of $462,280 to last year's total take of $292,291. He suggested they consider farming out the TDC administration to the private sector.
Commissioner Don Elwell, who also sits as the chairman of the TDC, explained the only way to legally re-allocate the remaining funds was to amend the plan. Elwell maintained it was nothing more than trying to restore the funds remaining to the proper accounts rather than leaving any of it in administration/payroll/overhead. That account, he pointed out, has been overspent for nearly a decade.
Jack Nelson, the chairman of the Highlands Tea Party organization, told the commission the controversy over the matter was a great example of why the tourist tax should have a sunset provision. A number of commissioners have steadfastly opposed the idea of putting the tourist tax up for a vote of the people saying they feared it might be defeated.
Commissioners Barbara Stewart and Greg Harris solicited assurances from Macbeth that the TDC had not engaged in any misconduct or abuse, and had done nothing fraudulent or unlawful. Macbeth indicated they had not. He told commissioners the pending action would put the issue to rest.
Following the vote, Harris turned to Highlands County Tourist Development Commission Executive Director John Sherlacher, saying "John, step up here and I'll take that target off your back."
saving the taxpayers and teaming up for success? (by: rbullock2016 - 10/19/2012)
With that budget couldn't the tdc be handled by the three local chamber of commerces ? They already have the expense of director positions along with staff, the chambers also have volunteers and most importantly the support and promotion of the area businesses. This tax is to generate revenue and benefit our area, why not let the chamber members who strive to generate business and success lead this up? I am sure there is a better solution for financial spending along with program efficiency that could be found with some team work between the county, the EDC or the Chambers..just a thought... also Good Job Commissioner Harris!
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