(WFLA) – Who paid for the Pitbull “Sexy Beaches?” video that promotes Florida?
If you fork over money for taxes in Florida or ever rented a car, you did — but don’t bother to ask how much. That’s a state secret, and it’s far from the only one when it comes to how Florida tourism promoters spend millions of your tax dollars.
Visit Florida is the private not-for-profit tourism promotion agency contracted by the state to sell sunshine and sandy white beaches. Visit Florida insists its hiring of rapper Pitbull to produce the “Sexy Beaches” video and otherwise serve as Florida’s tourism ambassador for a year-long stint, is off-limits to public scrutiny. You Paid For It — but you’re not allowed to know the amount of that bill.
“I would have loved to have shared the entirety of the contract,” Visit Florida President and CEO Will Seccombe said. “We were barred from doing that by Pitbull. It’s a trade secret of his and it was in the contract.”
Seccombe says while the taxpayer cost of Pitbull’s services and what the musician did to earn compensation may be a mystery, it was well worth it. Seccombe insists Pitbull’s “Sexy Beaches” video alone was good for 20 million hits on YouTube and Vevo. The video made valuable impressions on an audience of would-be Florida tourists that his private marketing agency couldn’t otherwise reach, Seccombe added.
“It had extraordinary reach and relevance,” he said. “Making Florida a sexy, hip, cool destination among the 100 million plus people who follow Pitbull.”
Visit Florida receives $76 million a year from the Florida Legislature to be its official tourism marketing arm. Of that, $24 million comes from rental car surcharges and $50 million is paid out of an economic enhancement trust fund. Visit Florida leverages those tax dollars with an equal or greater amount in private investment and in-kind services. But, like many of Florida’s local tourism agencies, such as Visit Tampa Bay, Visit Florida sometimes shields its spending of tax dollars from public view by declaring it a “trade secret.” That makes it exempt from Florida’s broad public records law.
A Compliance and Operational Review published in June by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) gave Visit Florida high marks for its management but also recommended changes.
“Visit Florida should develop a standardized process to identify which records are confidential and publish additional external reports detailing public spending,” the report reads.
The DEO suggested such a change to provide “assurances that public funds are expended appropriately.” In other words, minimize the secret spending and tell taxpayers what you’re doing with their money.
Pitbull’s contract expired a month after the DEO report, and Seccombe insists there won’t be any more like it that keep taxpayer spending under wraps. He cited a new policy in his agency that pushes more transparency. “Absolutely,” Seccombe said.
Meanwhile, more than 50 local tourism agencies funded by bed taxes throughout Florida are struggling with the same questions when it comes to balancing the public’s right to know and the self-interest of keeping private their well-oiled schmoozing with travel agents, travel journalists and meeting planners.
The private not-for-profit Visit Tampa Bay, for example, operates under contract with Hillsborough County government and derives 88 percent of its tourism promotion budget or about $10 million a year from the county’s five percent bed tax. Visit Tampa Bay refuses to release credit card statements by staff members who ring up millions in charges at fancy hotels and restaurants as they try to lure more tourism to Hillsborough County.
CEO Santiago Corrada calls that kind of spending data “trade secrets,” even though little can be gleaned from a hotel bill that simply lists the vendor, cost and date of any particular expense. Corrada, who earns more than $285,000 a year, urged 8 On Your Side to consult with his agency’s watchdogs inside Hillsborough County government for a proper accounting and to stop prying for more information. He insists Hillsborough residents have no direct stake in how his private organization spends money because tourists are the ones funding it.
“It’s not taxpayer dollars, ” Corrada said. “It’s bed tax dollars.”
By contrast, Pinellas County’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau operates completely in the sunshine and readily discloses how its staff spends millions of bed tax dollars on first class hotels, fine restaurants, travel to international resort destinations, liquor for clients and lavish parties in order to capture a bigger share of the tourism market.
“This is business,” Pinellas CVB CEO David Downing told 8 On Your Side.“This is how it goes.”
Despite a number of distressing Florida headlines this year about the spread of the Zika virus, the terrorist shooting in Orlando and multiple hurricanes striking the state, 2016 is shaping up to be another record year for tourism. It may even be the best year ever.
In Tallahassee the pressure for clarity on how tourism promoters spend hundreds of millions of tax dollars to feed that tourism juggernaut also appears to be increasing. “I think we’re in an environment where increasing accountability and increasing transparency is really important,” Secconde said. “People do want to know what we’re doing and how we’re spending the money.”
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