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Thursday, 31 March 2016 09:35

Visit Florida Criticized for Spending Practices Featured

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A recent investigation into Visit Florida found that thousands of dollars were spent by taxpayers to host foreign journalists including some from China. The journalists were provided vacations in the Florida Keys. In addition, undetermined amounts of taxpayer money was spent on what one Florida newspaper has called "secret contracts" for celebrities, race car drivers and soccer teams to ostensibly promote tourism in the Sunshine State.

Visit Florida, is a public-private group and it is estimated they will receive $78 million in state money in 2017. The groups maintains all the spending is well within the law and was necessary to facilitate its mission statement to boost tourism. As proof that its programs are hugely effective. Florida's tourist industry has set records the past five years, culminating in more that 100 million visitors in 2015.
But critics point to the fact that the agency is not subjected to sufficient oversight by the state resulting in a lack of contract review and public scrutiny Visit Florida says it does pay an accounting firm to conduct a limited annual audit of its affairs. but here again observers point out that it has not been subjected to the in-depth government audits that other state agencies undergo each year.
This lack of oversight has raised concerns for at least one watchdog group that monitors Florida.

"I think that is a concern. I'm kind of surprised the Legislature isn't demanding more oversight," said Ben Wilcox, a, research director for Integrity Florida.

Visit Florida's mission has support from most Florida lawmakers, but one House member agrees with Wilcox.
"I definitely am certain there needs to be a lot more oversight of … the agencies in particular that dole out taxpayer money," House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach said it a recent public statement directed at Visit Florida.

Visit Florida was created by the Legislature in 1996 as a way to combine state and private efforts to promote tourism. The law requires private funding to match the state's investment in Visit Florida, but most of that goes to ads and promotions that Visit Florida markets. The majority of its operating costs are borne by the state.

The Orlando Sentinel recently published an investigative report that said that, "Visit Florida will not release the details of advertising and promotion contracts involving the rapper Pitbull, the Fulham soccer team in London and a race car team sponsorship, citing an exemption to Florida's public records laws because they contain "proprietary information."

Further, the Sentinel's review of Visit Florida's financial and spending practices discovered that:
"Visit Florida has $22.1 million in an account as of June 30. Unlike regular state agencies, whose unspent funds are returned to state coffers each fiscal year, Visit Florida can carry over unspent funds to next year's budget. It will receive $78 million more in funding from the state for the fiscal year that begins July 1 — more than double its average annual budget over its 20-year history. Visit Florida did not respond to an email requesting comment on its plans for the $22.1 million. The agency spent $14,000 last fall for a vacation to Miami and the Keys for six Chinese journalists writing for travel publications in their country. The money paid for airfare and some meals, with other expenses paid by private companies."

Commentators on human rights issues have chided China's communist government, for its recent clamp down on Western media outlets, including a well-publicized incident over kicking a New York Times reporter out of the country in 2014."

Tim DeClaire, who directs global public relations for Visit Florida, addressed this issue stressing that press freedoms and civil rights in China weren't really considered but the fact that China represents a large and growing travel market was instrumental in deciding to provide the Keys' trips.

"We benefit by them going back and writing about their experience in Florida and promoting travel to Florida and raising awareness in a market as sizable as China," he said.

The trips, known as "familiarization tours," have also been given to travel journalists from other countries, and in total, Visit Florida's travel spending for employees, nonemployees and promotions increased from $2.1 million in 2013 to $3.5 million for the current year.
Visit Florida's CEO Will Seccombe receives a state salary of $120,000 but there are ample additional funding from private funds and Seccombe wouldn't provide the total he received from all sources. Further adding to the lack of accountability, Visit Florida does not provide an online listing of staffers' salaries.

Policy for Visit Florida is decided by a 31-member board is made up of tourism industry executives. Board members are appointed by another public-private group - Enterprise Florida.

Both Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida has strong bipartisan support thanks to the record tourism numbers. It was bolstered in this regard by a state economist's report that showed Visit Florida spending got a 3 to 1 return on investment for taxpayers from 2011-2013. During this same period, funds for Enterprise Florida, whose fundamental mission is helping companies expand or relocate in the state, were deeply cut this year, Visit Florida's funding was not cut.

According to the Sentinel investigation, "Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-brothers backed group, led the push against the Enterprise Florida incentives but didn't target Visit Florida. Despite that, the group has concerns."
"I think legislators need to be wary of creating public-private partnerships because they're not always working out on the ground as well as they'd like," AFP spokesman Skylar Zander said of Visit Florida.

This is not the first time spending at Visit Florida has been scrutinized. In 2009, during the depths of the Great Recession when tourism fell sharply, lawmakers grumbled about a Visit Florida call center being set up outside the state. CEO Ben Nocera - who is now the President of the Greater Fort Myers Beach Area Chamber of Commerce - was fired by the board despite having to pay $537,000 in severance payments.
Before Nocera's firing, Visit Florida's board had more legislative oversight, with two lawmakers — one from the House and one from the Senate — on the board. In 2011, State legislators considered a bill that would have consolidated Visit Florida with other economic development agencies but the proposal was weakened to cut the number of board members from 53 to 31 with no lawmakers left on for elected oversight to be present.

"Visit Florida benefited greatly from the direct participation of legislators on its board," said Dale Brill, who was the chief marketing officer for Visit Florida under Gov. Jeb Bush.

CEO Seccombe, disagrees that his organization needs to be more "governmental" saying that the "industry-driven" structure of Visit Florida is the best way for the group to succeed. He claims that there would be less "cooperation and flexibility" if Visit Florida were to become more like traditional state government agency. He also told the Sentinel that divulging trade secrets would hamper his ability to get good deals.
"We're on our 20th year as a public-private [entity], and the model works," he said. "This structure allows us to have total engagement from our industry."

Staff Report

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