Watching the fight between the convention center and Florida Citrus Bowl is like watching Animal Planet, where ravenous beasts battle over a wounded elk.
On one side is the convention crowd — hoteliers and tourism execs who've already built one of the largest buildings in America at 7 million square feet. They've devoured nearly $2 billion in tax money …but are still hungry for more.
So the green jackets and conventioneers warily eye one another as they stalk the prey they both desire — your money.
It is a gigantic pot of hotel taxes — more than $160 million a year that visitors and local staycation-takers leave behind in the form of a 6 percent tax on hotel rooms.
The prey stands no chance. It will be devoured.
For it is guarded by no one.
Sure, Orange County commissioners control the pot.
But they have never treated this cash like real money. Instead it is play money, meant to build big things. To keep the green jackets and tourism bosses fat and happy.
Whenever true needs arise in this community — be they cops, bus routes or parks — the commissioners simply say: "Sorry, this money isn't for you."
It is time to change that.
You see, right now, Florida law says hotel taxes can be spent only on things that help fill more hotel rooms — things like convention centers, entertainment venues and tourism marketing.
And so Orlando has lavished billions of tax dollars on those things, spending none of it on other things residents want and need.
Other communities do better by the people who live in the shadows of tourism.
In Nevada, for instance, hotel taxes are spent on schools and roads.
The logic is simple: "Tourists use our roads. They use our services. They should help pay for the problems."
Those are the words of one Las Vegas resident I met when I visited 10 years ago to learn more about how Vegas deals with the impact of tourism.
City leaders agreed, saying it makes little sense to keep pouring money into tourism while residents were suffering from crowded schools and clogged roads.
Most of you agreed. When the Sentinel conducted a poll around the same time, 70 percent of Central Floridians said they wanted to change state law to allow hotel taxes to be spent on things they truly needed.
I'd start with cops.
Just this month, the Sentinel carried an article about Orlando having the highest crime rate of any of Florida's big cities.
A big reason for high crime is that tourists strain our law-enforcement resources.
It only makes sense that they would help pay for that, especially in the tourism corridors.
Using hotel taxes to pay for deputies and cops would not only make us safer, it would free up money for other crucial needs, or even tax cuts.
See, right now, the hotel taxes get spent — whether they are needed or not. The hotel and sports guys can't help themselves. When it's available, they start dreaming up new ways to spend it.
Look at the Citrus Bowl, for example. In 2004, the Citrus Bowl guys said they just had to have an upgrade — one that would cost $50 million.
But then people started talking about spending billions of hotel taxes. Suddenly, $50 million would barely fix the rusted urinals. By 2007 — just three years later — they claimed they just had to have $250 million.
This is what happens when money sits unguarded. It becomes prey.
We see the same thing with the convention center. A few years ago, it had a spending plan of about $50 million or $60 million for upkeep and upgrades. Now we're talking about $175 million.
To put that number in perspective, consider this: Las Vegas built its entire recent expansion for $150 million.
Yes, the city that constantly kicks our tail in the convention business built an entire new wing for less than we want to spend on upkeep.
Our last expansion cost more than $600 million.
So why does Las Vegas do things more efficiently?
Because they have competition for their tax dollars.
You can't very well fritter it away on chandeliers and skyboxes when you could also be spending it on classrooms or cop cars.
Orlando leaders know this. That's why they don't want to change the rules. They like the restrictions.
It allows them to tell those who want money for public safety: "I'm sorry, but my hands are tied."
Even though they are the ones tying the knots.
It's time for that charade to end.
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