With drop of almost $78,000 in ‘bed tax’ collections for July, total revenue for the fiscal year holding slim lead over amount for same period in previous year

Visit Sarasota County president blames ‘red tide perception’

The 35th Annual Sarasota Powerboat Grand Prix Festival, which featured races off Lido Beach in early July, remains an important booster for county tourism in the summer. It is sponsored by Suncoast Charities for Children. Image from the Sarasota Powerboat Grand Prix Facebook page

The “red tide effect” put a big damper on Sarasota County Tourist Development Tax — or, “bed tax” — collections again in July, the Sarasota County Tax Collector’s latest report indicates.

The total revenue reported for July was $1,741,328.18, which was $77,900.36 less than the $1,819,228.54 accommodations collected in July 2018, the Tax Collector’s Office data show. The year-over-year drop was a bit more than 4%.

Nonetheless, through July, the county still had more Tourist Development Tax (TDT) revenue for the fiscal year at that point than it did for the same 10 months of the 2018 fiscal year. The total as of July 31 was $21,321,250.23.

Through July 31, 2018, the Tax Collector’s Office had collected $21,105,877.13.

However, because red tide already was becoming more problematic on the county’s shoreline, TDT revenue for July 2018 was just $5,390.88 ahead of the total for July 2017.

In her report to county and city leaders about the July data collected for her agency, Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County, wrote, “[W]e are still challenged with a red tide perception issue …”

Red tide effects on the county’s beaches grew severe in early August 2018. The algae killed tons of fish and produced a toxic aerosol that irritates the human respiratory system. The aerosol’s milder effect produces what locals refer to as “the red tide cough.”

The odor associated with the fish kills blew inland for miles at times, as evidenced by residents’ comments last August.

News media reports about the red tide bloom appeared not only in local and regional TV and newspaper accounts but also in publications with national circulation, such as The Washington Post.

The bloom finally subsided earlier this year.

In its most recent weekly update prior to this issue of The Sarasota News Leader, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) reported on Sept. 13 that the red tide algae, Karenia brevis, “was observed at background concentrations in and offshore of Sarasota County” over the preceding week.

In her report, Haley of Visit Sarasota County pointed out, “July 2019 visitor numbers dropped by 5.6% to 106,200 from July 2018 and visitor spending dropped by 4.8% to $88 million.

“Lodging occupancy dropped 6.4% to 65.8% and the average room rate dropped 4.4% to $163,38,” she added.

“Although inventory is up,” she noted, “the rooms sold dropped 2.9% to 224,704.”

This chart compares the Tourist Development Tax collections over three fiscal years. Image courtesy Sarasota County Tax Collector

In a report prepared for the county’s Tourist Development Council meeting on Sept. 19, staff of the county’s Office of Financial Management provided graphs showing that, as of the end of June, TDT collections added up to about 75% of what staff had budgeted for the entire fiscal year. The projection was that TDT revenue from Oct. 1, 2018 through Sept. 30 would total $25,577,450, the graph said. As of June 30, the amount collected was $19,190,559.

The 5% Tourist Development Tax is charged on all accommodations in the county rented for six months or less.

In more positive news: The Tax Collector’s Office’s report through July does show more revenue collected in earlier months than previously documented.

Tax Collector Barbara Ford-Coates has explained that her staff works diligently in following up on advertisements through such websites as Airbnb and Vrbo to ensure that all county property owners who rent accommodations collect the Tourist Development Tax.

Airbnb has an agreement with the county to turn over TDT revenue collected by its hosts, though it does not identify the individuals who rent property through its website.

Total Airbnb revenue for the fiscal year through July was $1,373,457.12, Ford-Coates’ office reported.

These graphs reflect TDT collections and expenditures through June. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Additionally, Ford-Coates has pointed out that audits and other actions can lead to refinements of the monthly figures as the fiscal year goes on.

For example, the latest report shows that TDT collections in June were down $54,663.64, compared to the total for June 2018. The previous report put that year-over-year drop at $78,109.79.

The figure for April also took a jump. The latest data show collections for that month exceeded the April 2018 figure by $116,859.72. Previously, the year-over-year uptick was recorded as $107,890.66.

For another example, the new report says collections were $9,495.98 higher in December 2018 than they were in December 2017. The previous report put that year-over-year climb at $7,401.85.

As for the report on TDT collections divided up by locations throughout the county: In July, the revenue from entities on Siesta Key finally surpassed that of accommodations in the city of Sarasota. Siesta accounted for 30.38% of the total, with the city of Sarasota in second place at 30.19%.

This chart compares the TDT collections by location. Image courtesy Sarasota County Tax Collector

Business owners on Siesta long have pointed to the fact that, for years, they have “won” the TDT collection competition by the time the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30.