Florida tourism call center operated by Kansas City vendorby George Bennett | February 10th, 2009
The agency in charge of tourism maintains a call center that is operated outside of the Sunshine State by a company not based in Florida.
The out-of-state hotline earned the head of Visit Florida, which contracted for the call center, the wrath of GOP senators on the Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations Committee this morning.
Lawmakers had cut the state tourism advertising budget by $5 million, but Gov. Charlie Crist reinstated that cut with his veto pen, further riling committee chairman Mike Fasano.
Visit Florida is a private agency that received $35 million from a contract with the governor’s Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development.
“You don’t know how unhappy that makes me that I just found that out. You don’t know how unhappy that makes me,” Fasano, R-New Port Richey, told Visit Florida President Bud Nocera, his voice rising. “We just gave you millions of dollars. The governor just vetoed cuts in your budget. And you have a call center in Kansas City using our tax dollars.”
The discovery comes as lawmakers are struggling to come up with ways to create jobs in the state where unemployment is now around 8.1 percent. They are also trying to lure visitors to Florida to try to boost the state’s economy as they face a $5 billion deficit next year and have to cut spending by another $700 million this year.
Nocera could not specify the amount of the contract with Kansas City-based USA 800 but said that agency officials were so unhappy with the vendor that they canceled the contract, set to run through June, early. The new contract will go to a Florida-based business, he said.
“People lose confidence when they hear these kinds of things in their government. Really,’ Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, scolded.
The committee is now scrutinizing Visit Florida’s budget, questioning everything from how much it spends on orange juice at welcome centers to salaries. Nocera earns $222,000 annually, one of two of the agency’s 115 employees who earn more than $200,000, Nocera said. Nine employees earn more than $100,000 per year and some also earn bonuses, he said.
Fasano was so irate that he ordered Nocera to return tomorrow morning with a list of all the contracts Visit Florida has issued and where the vendors are located.
“I totally understand what the members of the committee, how they felt. I need everyone to understand that Visit Florida absolutely tries to use Florida vendors for every possible contract. That is our policy and will continue to be our policy,” Nocera told reporters later.