Visionary Vacillating

What Is Actually Achievable For Orange County In The Near Future?

Orlando Tribune Visionary Vacillating 2007 Gavin P SmithORANGE COUNTY – Orlando County Mayor Richard Crotty recently gave his 7th annual State Of The County Address, marking several goals that he intends to pursue during the coming year.  But which are fluff, and which are realistic?

Crotty keenly sites various milestones of growth in Orange County and notes that they were not always popular decisions at the time, but greatly influenced prosperity of the county in the future.  He speaks of the decision of Disney to locate here, the development of the Orlando International Airport, the creation of Florida Technical University and its emergence later as the University of Central Florida, and the creation of the Expressway Authority after I-4 brought booming growth to Orlando.  He also references the tax payroll deductions of World War II, and how that doubled the amount of collections, which Eisenhower invested to fund the interstate highway system.

“Vision leads to milestone decisions that lift Orange County to the next level of greatness,” said Crotty.

Mayor Crotty may have a vision, but he’s certainly no Eisenhower.  He is not facing the same surplus in funds.  With property tax cuts coming from the state legislature, his county budget faces a mess.  However, Mayor Crotty, like his Orlando city counterpart Mayor Buddy Dyer, are looking to have their cake and eat it too.  They’re both pushing the downtown arena development plan, a costly measure at a time when county commissioners will need to create a penny-pinching budget.  Both Mayors are trying to head off a potential perception issue, and doing a very delicate dance with fiscal issues.

Crotty delves into a myriad of infrastructure and regional policy issues in his speech.  He discusses successes to date, such as the reform of the Lynx system, the commission of a task force to study workforce housing solutions, and his current seat as chairman on the Expressway Authority as a means to clean up its act and streamline its operations.  While this initially sounds good, Crotty can’t avoid dealing with the looming budget woes.

“My focus today is on economic diversification and how we can spend the tourist development tax to benefit the entire community,” said Crotty.  “When we talk about our tourism industry, we know that it is the heartbeat of our economy.  It is vital that tourism continues to thrive. If we don’t diversify our local economy, particularly in the area of high value jobs, then we are not doing the right thing for the next generation of citizens in Orange County.”

Crotty’s solution is a plan he’s talked about much before – Innovation Way.  Beginning with the University of Central Florida on the East side of Orlando, Crotty envisions a high-ranked research park, much like Silicon Valley in California and Research Triangle Park in North Carolina.  It would be tied together with UCF and with U.S. Department of Defense contractor companies located nearby.  As well, Innovation Way ties together 100 thriving businesses in the simulation industry for military and science applications.  As an expansion of Innovation Way, Crotty mentions the goal of building a new Valencia Community College campus right next to the airport. 

“It will focus on aerospace and defense and other types of aviation type activities,” said Crotty. “There is a potential partnership with the Florida Institute of Technology and Embry Riddle Aeronautical University to make this a reality so we need to push very hard to make it happen.”

Crotty’s plan includes the future development of a medical community in the Lake Nona area, with hope that it will bring in more facilities supported by institutes such as the University of Florida.  He has also worked extensively to push for a Veteran’s hospital and facility to be created.

“I’m particularly keen on seeing a new Veteran’s hospital become part of the medical city,” said Crotty.  Crotty has been working on securing a V.A. hospital in Orange County and feels the need is justified, considering 10% of all veterans’ services in the U.S. takes place in Florida.

Crotty’s speech would not be complete without giving mention to the upcoming development plan for new downtown area venues.  This plan includes almost $1.8 billion in expenditure for a new sports arena, a renovated Citrus Bowl, and a performing arts center.  “We will complete the downtown civic venues, and in the years ahead, we will point to them with great pride as one of the milestone decisions that today’s leaders of this community made,” said Crotty.

But can it really be done at a time where budgets are tight? 

“From our perspective its not a funding concern for us,” said Steve Triggs, Communications Manager for Orange County.  “Our contribution is all from the tourist development tax.  The real issue is with the City and how their revenues will be impacted by upcoming tax cuts.  That directly impacts their contribution.  We’re still optimistic that it can be done, but the City has some serious number crunching to consider.”

 Just how does Crotty’s idealistic vision compare with the stark realities of inflated housing costs, deep state-level tax cuts, higher crime rates, and affordable housing shortages?

“The citizens of Orange County and the state of Florida need and deserve tax relief,” said Crotty. “Unfortunately, under the proposed tax cuts coming down from Tallahassee, our entire Legacy Initiative may have to be scrapped.”

What would this include?  It would mean cutting out planned new county roads to the tune of $250 million.  It would also mean no money to purchase environmental lands, no funding to enhance the pedestrian safety program, and no proposed recreational trails to connect parks. Let’s not forget the centerpiece of the Legacy Initiative, the commuter rail.  It too could become a plan shoved away in a drawer indefinitely.  But it wouldn’t stop there, according to Crotty.

“The challenge we face today is that we need to give tax relief to our citizens, but in a way that it does not cripple their need for strong public safety,” said Crotty.

Hiring freezes have been put in place in the county government, with proposed budget cuts of at least 10% across the board.  However, budgets for the Sheriff’s Office and the Corrections Department are up. 

“As we prepare to make some cuts we have to increase funding for the Sheriff Department and the Division of Corrections,” said District 6 Commissioner Tiffany Moore.  “In light of the increasing criminal activity, we have to look at increasing preventative programs to curb the above mentioned juvenile activity.” 

That throws another problem in the mix.  Where will those funds come from?  Other services such as Health and Family Services, Parks and Public Works and more are all on the chopping block.  The Primary Care Access Network, which treats uninsured and underinsured residents and reduces the strain on hospitals, may also fall prey to cuts.

Crotty’s idealistic bottom line is to “have economic opportunities in a rich environment that has been well planned and well managed growing into the future.”  However, one could argue that while many good developments have been wooed to the region, in reality, the budget has been poorly managed.  Spending on these projects, with no fear of shortfall or forethought for tax cuts, cannot be considered ‘well planned’ or ‘well managed’. 

Perhaps a change to the legislation governing tourist development tax dollar allocations would help.  So far, by law, TDT funds cannot be used for public services such as those that may be hurt by pending budget cuts.  Plus, tabling the venues plan for a few months would allow time to let property tax cuts settle, and potentially tone down any perception issues. 

Commissioner Moore said it best.

“The question that we must answer is what type of county we want to have in 2020.”