Polk County’s tourist development tax is unique on several levels.
For starters, it was proposed by the hotel/motel industry, which collects it (like all taxes, it is paid by taxpayers), and was approved by the voters in a referendum. It proved so successful that the tourism industry proposed an increase (to five percent) which also was approved by the voters.
Although expenditures are approved by the Polk County Commission, oversight is by a Tourism Development Council made up of representatives of city and county government, professional sports, and the tourism industry.
Its task is to ensure that the money is spent for its declared purposes of bringing overnight visitors to the county, popularly known as “putting heads in beds,” and enhancing Polk as a tourism destination.
Most Polk Countians probably are not even aware of the tax, since they put their heads in their own beds, and rarely if ever pay it. But as a tax, it is public money, and all Polk Countians properly have an interest in how it is spent.
Last week, the county commission, at the recommendation of the TDC, voted to commit $14.6 million to the city of Lakeland for 20-year bonding for improvements to the Detroit Tigers winter stadium.
The commission also committed the fifth cent of the five-cent tax to Legoland for 10 years at $350,000 a year for marketing purposes, and to the Lake Myrtle sports complex.
Other funds are earmarked for sports recruiting and the Lakeland Center.
The tax is heavily weighted toward sports. In our opinion, it is too focused on that lucrative industry.
The initial enabling ordinance for expenditure of the tourist tax directed that 15 percent of the revenue from the first two cents be spent to promote the arts and other cultural activities. That mandate was either ignored or overlooked for several decades.
Last year, the county commission reenacted that requirement, and expects to have about $437,000 a year from that source for arts and culture. That is only 5 percent of a tax that generates about $8.6 million a year, but it is a start. The first arts and culture distributions were made last year.
It is important to note that the $437,000 is the minimum required to be spent for that purpose; the TDC and the county commission can increase the amount. We believe they should do so.
Oversight of these arts and culture expenditures is vested in a 21-member Arts and Culture Board. There are many areas which would benefit from modest amounts of funding, amounts that would pale in comparison to what is being spent for Major League Baseball and an investor-owned theme park.
Polk County’s History Center — better known as the old courthouse, with its historical museum and genealogical library — is in a perpetual struggle for funds for survival. Smaller museums in Lakeland, Lake Wales, Fort Meade, and other communities survive on a shoestring.
The county’s Homeland Heritage Park, which preserves a glimpse life as it it was lived in Polk’s pioneer days, has a staff of one.
Art shows and other cultural activities in Bartow, Lakeland, Winter Haven, Lake Wales, and Fort Meade, among other cities, bring in artists and art lovers from a large area. Funding of such events is a continuing challenge.
We commend the county commission for reenacting the arts and culture funding requirement that has languished from neglect for all these years.
And we hope that the TDC and the commission will give a much higher priority to these community-based events, which could do wonders with an allocation of thousands — not millions — of dollars from the tourist tax.
The direct benefit to the Polk County community, as well as to visitors interested in culture and the arts, would be dramatic.