YOU PAID FOR IT: Tampa tourism promoters reluctant to share details on spending

Santiago Corrada recently spoke to 600 attendees at Visit Tampa’s annual luncheon.
Santiago Corrada recently spoke to 600 attendees at Visit Tampa’s annual luncheon.

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Visit Tampa Bay, a private, not-for profit-organization that promotes tourism in Hillsborough County spends more than $10 million in tax dollars annually, but guards the details of that spending as closely the recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken.

“You already know why,” Visit Tampa Bay Santiago Corrada recently told 8 on Your Side. ”We won’t (share credit card records) because there are trade secrets in there.”

Corrada’s private tourism marketing organization derives 88 percent of its revenue from the Hillsborough bed tax that assesses a five percent fee every time a visitor checks into a Hillsborough hotel or motel. Those bed taxes reached a new record in 2016 for the third year in a row, surpassing last year’s bed tax collections by 10 percent, according to Corrada’s recent speech to 600 attendees at Visit Tampa’s annual luncheon.

“It’s hard for me to find a word that describes this year and amazing seems like a good place to start,” a giddy Corrada told a packed ballroom at the Marriott Waterside Hotel.

Corrada announced that countywide bed tax collections will likely reach $30 million this year, a threshold that would enable the Hillsborough County Commission to hike the tax from five to six percent in order to raise even more money from overnight lodgers.” So stay tuned opening the possibility of adding yet another percent to our bed tax,” Corrada gleefully told the crowd.

Corrada insists he isn’t obliged to share with us credit card details of how Visit Tampa spends millions in bed tax dollars because he’s already accountable to Hillsborough County with contracts with his agency as the county’s “official” tourism promotion . “We report our spending to the county each year,” Visit Tampa Bay’s media relations staff member Kevin Wiatrowski wrote to 8 on Your Side, “Those records, as we have discussed before, are open to the public review.”

But “those records” don’t tell the whole story, nor do they enable us to independently determine whether Visit Tampa is making good use of tax dollars earmarked to promote tourism, or to question specific expenditures.

We now know, for example, that someone on Corrada’s staff used a Visit Tampa Bay Mastercard to pay $21.74 taxi fare for “CVBReps holiday party” last December and  spent $1,314.70 on a “DC Trip Hotel Bill.” But, neither Corrada nor anyone on his staff is willing to explain how either one of those expenses fits in with Hillsborough County’s tourism promotion goals or whether they represent an appropriate use of  taxpayer dollars that fund 88 percent of Corrada’s Visit Tampa Bay budget.

Visit Tampa Bay isn’t alone in its reluctance to share details on how it spends the millions of tax dollars that flow into tourism marketing like Florida gold. A number of county-based tourism promotion agencies are going private, just so they don’t have to disclose the kind of details we recently obtained from the Pinellas Convention and Tourism Bureau, which still operates as a public agency under the control of Pinellas County Government.

Our review of  Pinellas CVB spending showed that 32 county employees on its staff spent $1.3 million on county-issued credit cards from December-July, including one staff member who racked up $196,000 in credit card spending as she traveled to resort destinations as far away as Cape Town, South Africa, staying at first class hotels and entertaining guests at fine restaurants to promote Pinellas tourism—all on the bed taxpayer dime.

“That’s how this business works,” Pinellas CVB CEO David Downing told Eight on Your Side. Downing explained that within the tourism promotion industry in Florida spending a fortune on travel and entertainment—including plenty of tax dollars to lubricate clients with liquor is not only acceptable, it’s encouraged. “This is business, this is how it goes,” Downing told us.

Pinellas has chosen to stay in the “sunshine” as a public agency and readily shares its credit card data as public records upon request. But, in Hillsborough, Corrada’s crew plays by different rules.  After more than a than a month of prodding by 8 on Your Side attorneys, Visit Tampa Bay reluctantly shared some financial data, but denied our request for staff member credit card statements that would have enabled an apples to apples comparison with how the Pinellas CVB spends bed tax dollars.

Corrada argues the money his private organization spends to lure tourists to Tampa from around the world isn’t really a tax at all, because almost no one who lives in Hillsborough pays for any of it. “It’s not taxpayer dollars, it’s bed tax dollars,” said Corrada.

“That’s the only way we can name it unfortunately the state statute calls it a bed tax it can only be collected by the county its collected at hotels like the one you’re standing in from people who are coming from outside the area not you or me.”

Whoever pays, a bed tax is still a tax—and Visit Tampa Bay’s share of that tax pie helps pay for some pretty nice salaries in Corrada’s organization. According to the most recent Visit Tampa Bay annual financial report filed in April with the IRS, seven staff members earn greater than $100,000 a year compared to just two staff members at the Pinellas CVB.

Corrada himself earned $277,175 in salary and an additional $8,187 in other benefits from Visit Tampa Bay last year.  His $285,362 in compensation from the not-for-profit organization he runs in Tampa is $100,000 more than his counterpart David Downing earns as a Pinellas County employee, $85,000 more than the State of Florida is allowed to pay USF President Judy Genshaft or any other state university president, and nearly double what Mayor Bob Buckhorn earns to run the City of Tampa.

Corrada refuses to comment about his pay or payroll but at Visit Tampa’s annual banquet he had plenty to say about all of the money his organization rains down on Hillsborough’s economy.  Corrada claims that Visit Tampa Bay brings in $71 tourist dollars for every dollar it spends on marketing and promotion. “We import money, folks,” Corrada told 600 attendees at Visit Tampa’s banquet. “We import money.”

RELATED: You Paid For It: Pinellas tourism promoters spend bed tax dollars on food, wine, and travel

Watch News Channel 8 at 6 tonight to see more of Mark Douglas’ You Paid For It investigation.

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