Tourism audit shows spending shortfalls
Gary Pinnell | Highlands TodaySEBRING - A nine-year audit of the 2 percent bed tax is done, and it shows significant over- and under-allocations, Chairman Don Elwell said.
Published: August 31, 2012
Published: August 31, 2012
When the 2 percent tourism tax was passed, the Tourism Development Council planned to spend 29 percent of the $2.989 million collected on administrative costs.
Instead, as of Sept. 30, 2011, the tourism bureau spent about $237,000 too much on the administration category, according to the audit by John Scherlacher, director of tourism, and his assistant, Dana Knight.
At the same time, the TDC did not spend about $160,000 to promote off-season events, $280,000 for arts and culture, and $130,000 for local events.
Now that the council has seen its own estimate of what Elwell called "overages and underages," the TDC must reply to a July 2 letter from the Florida Legislature's Joint Legislative Auditing Committee.
"John and legal staff are composing a response," Elwell said, illustrating the next step proposed by the TDC.
"I don't see how we can do anything until we get a response from them," Elwell said.
However, the TDC did adopt a proposed distribution of what Scherlacher called the fund balance, about $332,000 in collections the TDC has banked.
First, Elwell suggested, the money could be split evenly between the three underspent categories. Second, the money could be reallocated by the original percentages, with offseason to receive 32 percent or $174,000; arts and culture 17 percent or $93,000; and local events to get 12 percent or $65,000.
Thirdly, the remaining balance could be allocated by what was not spent during the nine years, so that offseason would get $93,000; arts and culture $163,000, and local events gets $76,000. A fourth scenario used a more complicated formula so that arts and culture would get $237,000; local events $86,000, and off season $9,400.
The council voted for the third option, which arts and culture representative Fred Leavitt said was fair, if the council removed some of the roadblocks to obtaining funds.
Part of the reason the money was spent was a lack of requests from arts and culture, Elwell said.
Leavitt termed those roadblocks. One roadblock was "heads in beds," he said. The TDC insists that tourism development dollars be verified by the number of out-of-towners who come to Highlands County and stay in hotels.
At least, Leavitt said, the TDC has finally admitted that it misallocated the money, and has put numbers to its errors.
Scherlacher said his audit was arbitrary. "If we spent money for a golf ad, we put it in the off-season category. If it was for an employee, it was operations. There were no outside sources saying, 'Oh, you need to put this into there.'"
Although the TDC is still spending more than 29 percent on Scherlacher and Knight and the TDC office, County Attorney Ross Macbeth has told Scherlacher and Interim County Administrator June Fisher that Scherlacher can justify charging a portion of his salary to arts, 10 percent, for example, if he has records to show that he spent 10 percent of his time on arts events.
In new business, the council approved a $750 grant request from Jeri Wohl for the Highlands Art League, and a $5,000 request from Robert Bennett of the Highlands Pedalers Bicycle Club to advertise the Highlands Bike Fest.
Bennett also suggested to Casey Wohl, who was there to update the TDC on Destination Downtown Sebring, that the city and the community redevelopment authority is considering improving the sidewalk and path around Lake Jackson.
"That's the gateway to the city," Bennett said.
The Tour of Sebring, a different three-day event, starts Friday, Bennett said. He expects the number of cyclers to exceed 400, all from outside of Highlands County.
Bennett said the Pedalers are shooting a video that will be used to promote future events.
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