Visit Orlando hides spending records for millions of tax dollars

Photo: Ryan Gillespie, Orlando Sentinel

Orlando Sentinel column by Scott Maxwell

August 25, 2017

Three decades ago, local leaders wanted to do more to promote Orlando as a vacation destination.

Basically, the tourism industry was tired of paying for all its own advertising.

So chamber-of-commerce types teamed up with county commissioners to launch a convention and visitors bureau in 1986 — something they billed as a public-private “partnership” that they funded with $346,000 in taxes that had been levied on hotel visits that first year.

Well, the tourism executives loved it. After all, this was advertising money they could take from tourists’ pockets, rather than their own.

So they asked for more. And more. And more.

Pretty soon, $300,000 from taxpayers became $3 million. Then $30 million.

Nowadays, taxpayers send about $50 million each year to the bureau, now known as Visit Orlando.

But as far as “partnerships” go, well, this one’s pretty lopsided.

IRS records for 2015 — the most recent year available — show that taxpayers contributed $49 million, while private “membership dues” accounted for less than $3 million.

That’s a “partnership” in the same way a tick “partners” with a bloodhound.

Perhaps more concerning, though, is that Visit Orlando keeps secrets about what it does with all these tax dollars.

By law, the agency must release some information, such as salaries for its top execs — a $714,000 compensation package ($406,000 base pay plus $308,000 in bonuses, incentives and benefits) for CEO George Aguel and packages of $303,000, $282,000 and $281,000 for other execs at the taxpayer-funded nonprofit.

But there is so much more we don’t know — precisely how tens of millions of tax dollars are spent on sponsorships, contracts, travel and advertising online, on TV and in publications, including the Orlando Sentinel.

One of the most closely guarded secrets surrounds a deal with the U.S. Tennis Association. Three years ago, Visit Orlando entered into a deal to sponsor tennis events — including the U.S. Open, which begins next week in New York.

It was an unusual partnership. Insiders say the multi-year deal was wildly expensive — totaling far more than the controversial $1 million contract Visit Florida signed with rapper Pitbull.

But was it a total of $2 million? $4 million? $6 million? More?

Visit Orlando won’t say. [READ MORE]

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