There was excitement in the air as we approached the first stop of the Orange County Town Meetings Tour at the Hope Church off John Young Parkway April 19. Finally, someone was going to answer the niggling questions about pulling $1.1 billion out of our … wallets … to build a new performing arts center and a golden pleasure dome for Rich DeVos and to renovate the Citrus Bowl.

About 250 people populated the sanctuary, each with a handout from last September. (All negotiations that have subsequently taken place between the city and the county would be inappropriate to talk about, as they have not yet been finalized, scolded Orange County commissioner Tiffany Moore.)

Crying babies all but drowned out Fred Winterkamp, Orange County's manager of fiscal and business services, as he talked the audience through who's paying for all this (you — and the tourists) and who's not (Rich DeVos). And, for the most part, it was the same story we got six months ago: The tourist tax will carry the heaviest burden ($540 million), with the rest coming from bonds (primarily the CRA variety), contributions and debts.

But doesn't the looming tsunami of property tax reform threaten to drown the whole property tax-funded downtown Community Redevelopment Agency? Yes, it does, but fear not: The county has an idea.

Should the Florida Legislature decide you pay too much in property taxes and give you a huge cut, the county thinks it would be swell to make everyone in the CRA zone exempt from any such cuts. In other words, you live outside the CRA, you get a tax break; you live within the CRA, no break for you.

Winterkamp didn't deny the county was toying with that awful idea, which came up via a question from the audience, but he didn't confirm it either. We called the city to see what they knew and discovered that no one there is even thinking about how tax cuts could gut CRA monies. "The city is not focused on the CRA right now," city flack Heather Allebaugh says.

That's comforting.

Moore took a few more questions, including the big one: "Why haven't you let the citizens speak on this?" She gave rehearsed answers and thus concluded dog-and-pony show No. 1.

"This whole thing is shit," grumbled a man with a baby in his arms.

Speaking of shit, did you catch the Sentinel's April 22 editorial about the three venues? If you missed "What's not to like?", here's our summary: Jane Healy et. al. badgered you nincompoops — again — for not swooning over our glorious leaders' plan to sink $1.1 billion into the three community venues the paper and Buddy Dyer have been trying to shove down your throats. The argument is: You're not paying for these things, so quit bitching about the Magic not paying enough.

"You can't get a better deal than free," the Sentinel wrote, "and, except for a handful of downtown Orlando property owners, these state-of-the-art venues will cost local taxpayers nothing."

If only that were true. The "handful of downtown Orlando property owners" is anyone who lives within the downtown Community Redevelopment Agency, the city-controlled taxing agency that's supposed to revitalize downtown and Parramore. The CRA, you might be interested to know, is taking on $160 million to finance Buddy Dyer's trifecta — assuming the CRA still exists after the Florida Legislature gets done "reforming" property taxes. See item above.

The city is also paying $27 million toward land for Rich DeVos' golden pleasure dome and using the $90 million it wants to get for the Centroplex toward these projects. That's $117 million in city dollars that could be spent on other things, like cops. Then there's all the debt the city is guaranteeing: $51 million in covenant bonds and $426 million to back up the tourist taxes.

If the facts don't back you up, then just do what the Sentinel editorial board does: make things up. From an April 24 editorial: "And the more residents learn about the three projects, the more they've come to support them." From the April 22 news story on the paper's own opinion poll: "The more some residents learned about plans to pay for the venues, the less they liked them."

Someone's lying to you.

Being a wildly popular column has its perks. For example, we got to take a peek at the Kennedy Space Center's $65 million poke in the eye to Disney April 18, way before you'll be able to get near it.

We got a chance to sample chocolate Challengers (very tasty, thank you), and we learned that the question most often asked of astronauts is, "How do you piss in space?"

While the Visitor Complex isn't building an interactive zero-G restroom (yet), they are trying to answer the second most popular query: "What does liftoff feel like?"

According to Col. Rick Searfoss, the new Shuttle Launch Experience (opening May 25) is the next best thing to the real deal, and since he's been up four times, who could argue? A veteran pilot and practiced PowerPointer, Searfoss previewed a ride that sounds suspiciously like an infamous Epcot attraction.

Up to 1,400 guests per hour will take a five-and-a-half-minute trip into orbit courtesy of moving seats, plasma screens and big-ass subwoofers. What sets KSC's great space coaster apart from the Mouse's? At the cape, the pre-show will feature actual astronauts, instead of Lt. Dan. And unlike Disney's souped-up Gravitron, this system simulates Gs by tipping you on your back (up to 75 degrees) or forward (30 degrees). No barf bags needed.

Best thing we learned: The $60 million ride wasn't built with taxpayer money, and it won't raise the admission price at KSC. Final lesson: Astronaut ice cream isn't as bad as we remembered, when it's complimentary.

This week's report by Jeffrey C. Billman, Seth Kubersky, Billy Manes and Bob Whitby.


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