Penny ante? 

Orange county's sale tax increase is not yet on the ballot. But here's how much it's cost so far. It's not yet on the ballot, but Orange County already has begun paying for expenses related to the 1-cent sales-tax hike proposed by County Chairman Linda Chapin. Since April, Chapin's assistants have been tapping county funds to finance what Chapin refers to as an informational effort, but which looks a lot like a promotional campaign. At last count, more than $70,000 in public money had been drawn from various county government accounts to pay the expenses -- and it's far from over. A 27-page "interlocal agreement," which outlines how more than $2.2 billion in new tax revenues raised over six to 10 years would be split between the county, Orange County Schools, Orlando and other unnamed cities, gives prospective partners until Aug. 25 to get in line for a piece of the pie. The money would pay for new and refurbished classrooms, roads and mass transit, police and jails, parks and stormwater control. Chapin's office insists there is nothing wrong with its use of the funds. "These are not promotional pieces. This is not the business we are in," says Ben Hardcastle, the county's director of communications. Indeed, even if it were, Assistant County Attorney Linda Akins has determined that Chapin's office can spend public money on anything which serves a "public purpose." How do you define "public purpose"?? In Akins' words, it's "whatever the legislative body declares it to be." With that sort of latitude, spending has grown beyond the original $54,000 budget and late last week had surpassed $70,000. And another $20,000 is yet to be spent on a second televised forum. Meanwhile, city and school-district officials say they have refrained from dipping into their budgets on the 1-cent tax's behalf. Without an actual ballot measure, they note that there is still no issue to promote. (A formal County Commission vote is expected next month.) "You have to form a political campaign to do any kind of formal campaign," says Joe Mittiga, assistant to Orlando Mayor Glenda Hood. Chapin's office began spending county funds on the campaign in early April, months before July 14, when "Common Cents," the political action committee backing the issue, was formed. (Providing a counter campaign is a political-action committee, Citizens Opposed to Hiking the Sales Tax, or CO$T, which, in its first campaign finance report, reported contributions of $800. Its chairman, Bob Bomia, says, "It's unethical to use taxpayers' money to raise peoples' taxes.") Between April 2 and June 9, the county paid $6,499.20 to an employment agency for a temporary employee to assist Hardcastle with the effort. A county financial official says the county commonly pays about $8 an hour for temporary help; Chapin's office paid hourly wages from $11.20 to $16.80, records show. In addition, the campaign has spent $19,500 for a phone system to handle requests for information, $16,000 for printing, $9,000 for postage, $500 for a buffet provided at a Citizens Forum held May 22, and $350 for plants rented to decorate the set for the first videotaped forum that aired once on public television and perhaps 20 times on the county's public access channel. On May 13, a courier service also was paid $14 to deliver 100 mailers to a meeting of the Central Florida Hotel/Motel Association. That small expense is noteworthy because, if they approve the sales-tax hike to 7 cents on the dollar, Orange County voters also would repeal a penny of the 5-cent tourist development tax levied on hotel visitors, once the debt on sports facilities is paid off. The tourist tax, which raised $15 million last year, originally was promoted to fund a stadium for a pro baseball team. That tax could be continued to pay the debt on expansion of the Orlando/Orange County Convention Center. Instead, according to the proposed ordinance that would place the sales-tax hike on the ballot, "in the best interests of the citizens and the county," the penny would be repealed "in order to ensure that the level of taxation imposed on hotel room rates in Orange County does not act as a drag on the vitality of the tourism industry, which provides employment and economic well-being to many citizens in Orange County." Thus, while fulfilling a promise to retire the "fifth cent" once debts have been repaid on the Arena and Citrus Bowl improvements (in about 14 months), Chapin would be aligned with the hotel owners, a strong and potentially meddlesome lobby in the sales-tax campaign. Also backing the issue: the Downtown Development Board, the Greater Orlando Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Orlando Association of Realtors and the Internation- al Drive Chamber of Commerce. With Common Cents formed and potential campaign contributors lining up, the county currently plans to underwrite the $20,000 expense of a second TV forum on the tax issue, bringing the total amount devoted to the campaign to more than $90,000. Without the "informational" push, Chapin says, opponents would have dismissed the sales-tax hike proposal as "a plot developed by authority figures behind closed doors." She adds, "We've tried to be very conservative" with expenses, and described the $90,000 as "money spent to communicate with citizens about an issue critical to this community." For all the spending and publicity, much must still be done. Chapin and others are leaning toward extending the tax from six to 10 years. But even that decision awaits. "We're at a little bit of a disadvantage," says Mittiga of the city of Orlando. "We're not sure if it's a six-year plan or a 10-year plan." Indeed, while supportive of the proposal, Orange County Schools officials are awaiting word on what portion of the tax revenues would reach them. "We know the amount we need to even get close," says the district's April Podnar. "We need to know their intentions." The clock is ticking. On Aug. 5, the county commission is expected to vote to set the issue for a Nov. 4 election. Then the real campaigning will begin.

Check in the mail

If it votes to hold a special election for the 1-cent sales-tax increase, the Orange County Commission would be triggering the largest mail-in vote in Florida history -- 370,000 ballots, more than four times the current record. In Orange County, special issues have been decided by mail-in ballots in cities, including Winter Park and Apopka. But this would be the first county-wide mail-in ballot, although it has been legal in Florida since 1987 -- since 1990 for revenue-generating issues. While confident, county Supervisor of Election Bill Cowles declined to insist that he was totally comfortable: "It's as comfortable as I can be with what federal law and state law allows me." He is attracted to savings estimated at $250,000. Also, a greater voter turnout -- as much as 50 percent -- is anticipated, based on results in mail-in elections in Florida, Oregon, and Colorado. Yet Cowles' office must deal with unique problems, not the least of which is preventing ballots from being cast by unregistered voters. To minimize this, officials are contemplating an advanced mailing to verify voters' whereabouts. But this would cut into projected savings, more so unless it can be substituted for a mailing required in November to verify the addresses of registered voters who have failed to cast ballots in the past two years. Otherwise the election would be handled exactly as absentee ballots are in traditional elections. The ballots would be mailed Oct. 15. The U.S. Postal Service would be expected to return all ballots mailed to voters no longer living at the designated addresses. Ballots must be returned by 7 p.m., Nov. 4. On Nov. 5, election officials will begin comparing signatures on returns with those electronically filed at the elections office. There will be no other special precautions, Cowles says. The idea originated with County Chairman Linda Chapin, who says she floated the idea past Cowles because it seemed to her like an innovative way to involve more voters -- and save money.

More by Lawrence Budd


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