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Miami-Dade hotel taxes could fund tourism police  Mar 19, 2009

Hotel taxes would pay for new tourism police in Miami-Dade County under a proposal that has drawn the ire of hotel groups and could have law enforcement competing with baseball for the dollars.

Miami-Dade commissioners want to create a new police force to patrol popular tourism destinations, using hotel taxes to fund the special squadron.

The county's largest hotel trade groups are fighting the plan, which received a unanimous endorsement by commissioners at their regular weekly meeting. State law limits most jurisdictions from spending hotel taxes on anything but tourism promotion and to subsidize public venues such as museums and sports stadiums.

It's unclear how the police unit would work or how much it would cost. The resolution sponsored by Commissioner Javier Souto described a force patrolling Miami International Airport, the county's port, zoo and beaches, as well as malls, tourist attractions and major events like fairs and sporting events.

By using hotel taxes to pay for policing a large swath of the county, Miami-Dade could free up general tax dollars for other county services amid a budget crunch. The hotel taxes to be used in the plan generated about $68 million last year.

The proposal comes days before a scheduled vote on a plan to spend an estimated $1.8 billion in hotel taxes over 40 years on a proposed Florida Marlins ballpark in Little Havana. Supporters of the plan, championed by county Mayor Carlos Alvarez, have pointed to Florida's hotel-tax laws as a reason to build the ballpark since the county has limited options in how to spend the revenue.


''Those dollars can't be used to for affordable housing, education or other government services,'' Alvarez wrote in a January public letter. ``We've got the money . . Let's not shove it under a mattress.''

A spokeswoman said Alvarez will not veto the tourism-police resolution and stands by his stadium argument.

''Nothing about what the mayor has said has changed,'' said spokeswoman Victoria Mallette. ``Tourist-tax dollars have limited uses. We all know the uphill battle involved in changing the rules in Tallahassee.''

Souto's office did not respond to interview requests. Robert Skrob, director of a state group of local tourism bureaus, said he was not aware of a similar police force in Florida.

Miami Beach already spends hotel taxes on police costs tied to its sprawling tourism industry, utilizing a broader hotel-tax law written 31 years ago especially for coastal cities in Miami-Dade.


The commission's backing of a ''specialized tourist police unit'' places Miami-Dade on the leading edge of a long-standing campaign to loosen restrictions on hotel taxes.

A bill that would have allowed more hotel taxes to be spent on affordable housing in the Keys died in a legislative committee in Tallahassee this week, and the travel industry has successfully fought back other attempted rewrites over the years.

But with Florida facing a $6 billion budget gap and local governments also forced to slash spending and raise revenues, lobbyists for the tourism industry are girding for more battles to preserve the millions in tax dollars used to promote travel.

The Miami-Dade resolution instructs the county's lobbyist to press for the law change this session. Leaders of a local hotel trade group and its statewide counterpart plan a news conference Thursday to denounce Miami-Dade's plan.

''In an economy where tourism is dying . . . now someone wants to make an intrusion on a tax that's used to promote more business?'' said Stuart Blumberg, president of the Greater Miami & the Beaches Hotel Association, which is partially funded by hotel taxes.

William Talbert III, president of Miami-Dade's tourism bureau, said his group also will fight the county's proposal. The Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau received about $9 million in hotel taxes in 2008 but has been cutting its budget in the face of a 9 percent decline in collections this year.


''The timing could not be worse right now,'' Talbert said. ``Scarce promotional dollars are decreasing.''

Though the resolution passed unanimously, Commissioner Jose ''Pepe'' Diaz said calls from Blumberg and others in the tourism industry prompted him to reconsider his vote.

''To take money away from tourism when that money is needed for marketing -- it creates an issue,'' he said. ``It's something we're going to have to revisit.''

Miami-Dade hotel taxes could fund tourism police
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