Council Watch 

Billy Manes paying attention to local government so you don’t have to

There would be glassy-eyed smiles, hair swishes and octogenarian phlegm grumbles, platitudes with no latitude and all of the other decoupage shards that make up overambitious civic projects rubber stamped in the haze of Monday afternoon pseudo-scrutiny. There would also be the equal and opposite pronounced victimhood you might expect from a municipal dais loaded with puppets incapable of wrapping their lips around the words “no” and “stop.” “The media got it all wrong,” your city politic would say, undoing the top button on its bulging trousers while wrestling a victory from the economic sinkhole. Well, some of the media, anyway.

“Vision Fulfilled,” the mayor recalled an old Orlando Sentinel headline from 2007 when the venues deal mysteriously (meaning there was no real public input) became a reality, painfully unaware of just how “Mission Accomplished” that statement sounded. All that was missing was a bomber jacket and a banner.

No matter. It was a day for dancing around the country club, as cake crumbs fell from moneyed mouths down to the bottoms of the golf holes where the people might – just might – get a taste of the imagined good life that the city’s been peddling for more than five years. The Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, still wounded by its fabled takedown by county government in January, had done its phoenix act – somehow managing to become financially viable on the backs of bank-issued “letters of credit” from old rich men (thanks, Dad!) – and crept back into viability in what stands as one of the most absurd 11th-hour policy decisions this column has ever witnessed.

The mayor went so far as to recess the afternoon council meeting so that all of the somebodies could gather for a photo op in the City Hall rotunda, exaggerated faces and choreographed back-pats conjuring a Caligula-like orgy of artless finance and public legacy. Cirque de Soleil, it was announced, threw $250,000 into the vanity bonfire. Groundbreaking is going to be on June 23.

But first, in the morning hours, city staff and the elected few gathered for a perfunctory two-hour workshop to discuss the merits of and weaknesses of the performing arts center plan as we know it (all center, no arts) in what promised to be a contentious display of logic and reason. Promises, like banks, are often broken, though, and the city instead used the opportunity as a sort of muted pep rally. Commissioner Tony Ortiz posited that the only people who don’t want DPAC to happen are the heathens who don’t understand its “intellectual” premise (cough). Commissioner Patty Sheehan went to the tear well to recall (again) her first exposure to classical music at an Ohio performing arts center, blissfully unaware that there would be no classical music in Orlando’s new venue. And Commissioner Robert Stuart, a typically reserved man of paternal stature, imagined himself on a pulpit, saying, “This is not an Orlando project, it’s a community project. We ought to rejoice in that.”


Only Commissioner Phil Diamond seemed to miss the Cats-sponsored Kool-Aid truck, calling out the suspicious construction financing and the nonexistent operations plans like anyone with anything beyond a haircut above his neckline would. He would be the lone “no” vote in this political tragicomedy.

Item:The city approves five items pertaining to the construction of the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.

Translation: It’s really happening. Thanks in large part to the vague (but signed) promises of the city’s richest inhabitants, a perceived $16 million shortfall in the DPAC house of cards could be quantitatively willed away, just like that. Orlando’s chief administrative officer, Byron Brooks, PCL Construction’s nervous assistant district manager, Trey Nobles, and the city’s chief financial officer, Rebecca Sutton, sauntered through an omnibus PowerPoint on the history and fate of the DPAC project, plucking numbers and certainties out of whatever air suited their case. PCL has tweaked the project to the extent that one month of tweaking a multi-million dollar project can be taken seriously and decided that 96 percent of everything done up until now – bids and design, mostly – were totally fine. All parties have decided on a guaranteed maximum price of $130,818,490 for Phase One (likely the only phase) of the project, but with contingencies and other costs, the real total is closer to $201,558,490. Somewhat hilariously, the city is banking on a 13.5 percent boost in tourist development taxes (TDTs) this year, which could gain the ailing project a whopping $1.2 million. If the upward streak continues, and it sort of has to, TDTs will bring in $9.6 million in 2012, $14.4 million in 2013 and $17.8 million in 2014, the year this hollow monument is supposed to be completed. Should that not work out, the city will consider issuing more bonds to fill the gap or just pull cash from the $25 million reserve specially set up for the venues deal. Regardless, the rich guys will get paid back first, because, as Sutton put it, statements of credit are “expensive.” As for the real parts of the performing arts center, the ones nobody seems to care about anymore? DPAC Chairman Jim Pugh told the mayor that it’s his goal to raise $68 million to see Phase Two through, even though it would cost $110 million to make it a reality, according to Sutton. Until that fantasy time, all administrative and educational concerns will be handled from the already existing church structure on the property and the ballet and orchestra will likely remain in the Bob Carr ghetto. This is what “world-class” feels like. Happy now?

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