Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs may be looking for a way out of the corner she’s painted into involving the multi-fasceted controversy over the county’s robust tourist tax.
The mayor is calling a joint meeting of the Orange County Board of Commissioners and the Orange County Tourist Development Council with the prospect she’ll be seeking a path to deal with new requests for the money even though she has pledged a freeze on that money until November.
That freeze had put her and Central Florida tourism leaders at loggerheads, because it essentially blocked a plan they had proposed on April 1. And that led to a hostile exchange on April 8 between Jacobs and the executive director of the Central Florida Hotel and Lodging Association, Rich Maladecki.
The joint meeting to start discussing what to do next is slated for May 10.
That should be within the tight timetable cited earlier this week by the Central Florida region’s sports authority CEO, Steve Hogan, for another new development. The Florida Citrus Sports’ organization’s just-revealed negotiations with the NFL for Orlando to host the 2017, ’18 and ’19 Pro Bowl all star games.
The NFL and the Florida Citrus Sports are talking about seeking $1 million a year in direct tourism tax and another $500,000 from Visit Orlando, which is funded by the tourism tax.
But that’s just the latest challenge for Jacobs in what has become an ongoing dispute between Orange County and the city of Orlando and the tourism industry.
Still, in a letter she sent Thursday to county commissioners and members of the Tourist Development Council announcing the joint meeting, Jacob also opened the door to a broader discussion of the tourism tax, and how county officials decide how to spend it.
The joint meeting of county commissioners and the Tourist Development Council was deliberately called 10 days before a May 20 meeting of the Charter Review Commission, so that the discussions might play out before the charter commission has to make any final decisions.
Jacobs likely will lay out her ideas Friday as she delivers her annual State of the County speech, her biggest public address of the year.
“As Orange County Mayor, I have enjoyed alongside our hospitality partners. While there might be disagreements over particular issues, those are separate and apart from our shared goal to enhance our community’s economic viability, quality of life and world-class brand,” she wrote.
Orange County Commissioner Scott Boyd welcomed the news of a joint meeting. He said he “absolutely” expects it should include discussions of both the NFL Pro Bowl opportunity and the hotel association’s proposals.
Boyd said he supported the charter process going forward, but added.
“Maybe the landscape has changed a little bit. That’s fine. Let’s work it through,” he said.
The Orange County tourism tax, 6 percent on every hotel guest, has been booming in the past two or three years, and brought in $226 million last year.
In a deal struck between Orange County and the city of Orlando in 2007 and amended in 2014, most of the money went toward the Orange County Convention Center and Visit Orlando’s international marketing campaign, while much of the rest of it was split between other tourism needs, arts, sports and construction and expansions of Orlando’s sports and performing arts venues, including the Citrus Bowl, which would host the Pro Bowl games.
At the behest of the Central Florida Hotel and Lodging Association, the Orange County Charter Review Commission has preliminarily endorsed a county charter amendment initiative. The ballot initiate, if it gets final approval from the CRC this spring, would ask voters to set a formal process into the charter spelling out how the county would deal with tourist tax changes.
Jacobs actually prefers doing that through a county ordinance, which she believes would retain flexibility for officials while still setting a formal process. But she also committed to letting the charter process go forward.
Then, on April 1, the lodging association, Walt Disney World, SeaWorld and Universal Orlando pitched a new plan to spend the money that would include additional funding for the next phase of construction of the new Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center in downtown Orlando, among other beneficiaries. Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer endorsed the plan but Jacobs, while supporting the arts center expansion, rejected the proposal, in part because she said she wants the charter review process to be completed before any tourism tax changes are made.
She found herself standing up for a process that would lead toward a system that she herself opposes.
“As I have stated, I support formalizing the existing evaluation process and, refining it if needed, but I believe the most appropriate way to formalize that process is through an amendment to the TDT plan via the county code amendment,” she wrote in a letter delivered Thursday to county commissioners and members of the Tourist Development Council.
“However, as indicated in my April 6 memo to the BCC, if the CRC movers forward with the proposed TDT charge amendment, I strongly believe the TDC should await the outcome of the electorate in November,” she continued. “If the voters approve the amendment, then it would be my plan to obtain broad community and industry support in crafting the implementing ordinance.”
At the contentious April 8 CDC meeting, there was talk of a future meeting of that council on this topic. This will be that meeting, Jacobs said.