Who knew it would be so hard to create a system that would streamline tourist development tax requests and make the whole process transparent? Rosen Hotels & Resorts Inc. founder Harris Rosen surely didn’t think it would be so challenging.

What’s being debated is a charter proposal presented during a Dec. 17 Orange County charter subcommittee meeting by one of the committee members. In short, the charter — something Orange County voters could possibly see on the November 2016 ballot — puts into place a transparent application process requiring any organization, company, event host, etc. asking for tourist development tax money to show the return on investment for those tourist taxes given; i.e., room nights generated, economic impact, jobs created and more.

Tourist development taxes, or resort taxes, are a tax added to hotel sales that feed into a pot of money that can be reinvested into the tourism industry via programs, advertising and projects that boost visitation. The tax is not paid by Orange County citizens, but by someone who comes here and pays for a hotel room. So the more visitors that stay in hotels, the more tax money is generated and the more Orange County can invest in events, projects and marketing efforts that further promote tourism.

Seems easy enough to understand, right?

Well, the charter has gotten huge push-back from Orange County leaders and members of the arts community who want to leave the tourist development tax recommendation process as is: in the hands of the county Tourist Development Council and Board of County Commissioners. Another fear from arts members was the notion that the charter would redefine tourists into someone who purchases a room night and not, say, someone who simply visits the region.

It was that point that seemed to really get under Rosen’s skin: “This is a tax to support the tourism industry. Why are we so afraid to let the people decide? Ordinances can be changed overnight, a charter is set in stone,” said Rosen. “If you don’t have people staying overnight, you are not going to collect the tax. We are not evil for wanting people to stay overnight. It benefits the economy.” Rosen’s company employs more than 4,000 people and has more than 6,500 rooms throughout Central Florida.

Angel de la Portilla, a government consultant with Central Florida Strategies Inc. who works with Rosen, said the charter has to be addressed now because it will create the proper template for the future when millions of new tourist development tax dollars become available from debts paid off on the Orange County Convention Center and the Orlando venues projects. “But there’s some fear of putting measures in a county charter to evaluate tourism tax projects? What’s the fear? Rosen Hotels is not asking for anything else,” he said.

However, there does seem to be something that has county officials flustered.

During the meeting, Fred Winterkamp, Orange County’s manager of fiscal and business services, reiterated the sentiment of the county’s Tourist Development Council that the current process — with some minor tweaks — would keep the process more flexible. And since excess resort tax funds are still years away, it will be a long time before the process is used and vetted.

For now, the charter seems to have moved to the next stage, which means the fight will only get more heated. The charter’s next step will be to go before the full Orange County Charter Review Committee sometime in early 2016 for review.

Stay tuned as this is a developing story.

Source: The Orlando Business Journal
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