You Paid For It: Visit Tampa Bay gets millions more tax dollars to spend on tourism promotion

8 On Your Side: You Paid For It with Mark Douglas
8 On Your Side: You Paid For It with Mark Douglas

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – It has been a record year for tourism, and now promoters at Visit Tampa Bay have even more reason to celebrate.

The Hillsborough Commission has just approved millions more in funding so that Visit Tampa Bay, a private not for profit agency, can share in the wealth and spend it in a semi-secretive manner to promote more tourism.

Commissioners added $1,049,641 to the agency’s funding under a tax sharing formula agreed to in the county contract and also appropriated an additional $1,220,000 for three “Visitor-based programs” and $500,000 for a “Business Incentive Program to recruit major conventions and meetings to the County.”

Altogether this fiscal year, Visit Tampa Bay will receive $14,169,641 in money derived from the bed tax that You Pay For if you sleep in any hotel or motel in the county. That’s nearly the entire budget of Visit Tampa Bay, which spends a fortune on advertising, travel, and entertainment in the name of promoting tourism.

Visit Tampa Bay gives quarterly reports but hides much if its detailed bed tax spending from view as “trade secret” information.

According to the latest financial disclosure reports filed with the IRS, Visit Tampa Bay President and CEO Santiago Corrada earned $285,362 to run the private not for profit tourism agency.

That’s $121,070 more than Corrada earned the year before and nearly twice as much as taxpayers pay the Mayor of Tampa to oversee 4400 city workers and a $900 million budget.

Visit Tampa Bay has just received a clean audit from the Hillsborough Clerk of Courts office based on a small sampling of expenditures, according to the Director of Auditing who reported that finding to commissioners Wednesday.

Corrada’s private organization may have auditors’ blessing and overflowing coffers thanks to the bed tax, but he is reluctant to share exactly how all of that money is spent with Eight On Your Side.

Unlike his tourism promotion counterparts in Pinellas County, Corrada refuses to release his staff’s credit card statements that reveal liberal spending on liquor, travel and entertainment in the name of tourism promotion. A review of credit card records in Pinellas–where a public agency promotes tourism and just about everything is unquestionably a public record, showed lavish spending on parties, alcohol and international travel and stays at five star resorts and hotels, all of it perfectly legal under the liberal laws that govern tourism promoters and the use of bed tax money.

Corrada shares broad-based quarterly spending and performance reports with Hillsborough County, but does not provide all of his agency’s credit card documents for public scrutiny. Corrada also refuses to reveal items as seemingly inane as how much his agency spent hiring an actor to portray a faux “business pirate” as part of Visit Tampa Bay’s meeting and convention promotions.

He doesn’t consider bed taxes as taxes because tourists, not locals, pay most of it.

“Oh, it’s tax money,” said Hillsborough Commission Chairman Stacy White. “Yes, sir.”

White was surprised to hear of Corrada’s refuses to share detailed credit card spending records and believes every tax dollar spent by Visit Tampa Bay out to be open for public inspection. “Absolutely,” White said.

So why the secrecy?  Corrada claims there are trade secrets involved in how he’s spending millions in tax dollars. But, we’re curious to know more, and so is Hillsborough Commission Chairman Stacy White.

You’ll hear more from White in tonight’s You Paid For It report at 5pm.

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