Weighing the penny 

As the days dwindle leading to the 7 p.m., Nov. 4 deadline for voting on Orange County's 1-cent sales tax increase, the more than 200,000 voters yet to return their mail-in ballots must decide: Do we really need all this stuff in the next decade, or should we expect our government leaders to factor the proposed projects into their budgets, delaying -- if not leaving forever unfulfilled -- their realization?;;Perhaps even more importantly, how would the government operate and maintain the new infrastructure to be funded through the tax? Will even more money be needed, or will the sales-tax hike produce enough additional revenue to meet all of the county's capital needs?;;If the issue passes, for the next 10 years, consumers will pay another penny in sales tax for every dollar spent in Orange County on items costing up to $5,000, thus raising $2.2 billion in revenues expected to fund 608 projects. (Currently, the county's sales tax is six cents on the dollar.) Forty percent -- about $885 million -- of the money would be devoted to Orange County Public Schools, including the construction and equipping of four new high schools. Nearly as much -- 39.5 percent -- would be spent on light rail, buses and roads, including more than $70 million toward the Apopka Bypass and $50 million to buy land on which to build the Western Beltway -- two projects intrinsic to opening up western Orange County to development. This still leaves $186 million for jails and the sheriff's department, $140 million for parks and recreation, and $98 million for stormwater control. Spending would be overseen by a citizen's oversight board rather than an elected body.;;Clearly, the issue's creators worked hard to bundle its elements in a package attractive to a broad audience. From hiking trails to highways, there is something for virtually everyone.;;Still, there are those who would rather the issue went down in flames, like previous attempts to raise taxes in Orange County. The dispute often boils down to differences of opinion on the importance of growth.;;Standing in front of a map dotted and lined in various colors to illustrate the immense potential of sales tax proceeds, attorney Tico Perez, a co-chairman of the pro-tax committee and chairman of the Greater Orlando Chamber of Commerce, says, "Until we can open up our community to the movement of goods, our growth will be stifled.";;While favoring the parks and trails proposed, the Sierra Club opposes the overall issue. "This is essentially welfare for developers," says spokesman John Puhek. "This is going to pay for a lot of things they would have had to pay for otherwise.";;Of those interviewed, only County Chairman Linda Chapin denied passage of the penny-tax hike would stimulate new development. "The investments that would come through this are to meet a backlog of unmet needs," says Chapin, whose office singlehandedly carried the issue until the Orange County Commission put itbefore voters.;;Looking ahead, those voters might wonder about the financial implications of the tax hike for the county, school district and 11 cities that would divy up the proceeds. As the years pass, and the projects are completed, the governments would be responsible for their operation and maintenance. And none of the sales-tax revenues can be used to pay for this.;;Nonetheless, both Chapin and Orlando Mayor Glenda Hood's office insist their shares of the upkeep would be managed without adding staff or otherwise stretching their budgets. Emphasizing that only roads would be built within Orlando's city limits, Hood spokesman Jim DeSimone says, "We're not projecting that our improvements will require any additional staff or costs." And noting that much of what the county would be responsible for involved low-maintenance projects, such as trails, Chapin says, "We must not build things we can't afford to maintain.";;Yet both Chapin and DeSimone suggested school officials might be forced to budget for more staff and expenses. In the next decade, the district plans to open 34 schools, including 12 built from the sales-tax proceeds. Each opening will force the district to juggle its operating budget, says Henry Boekhoff, deputy superintendent of business services.;;"There always is (a drag on the operating budget) when you open new facilities," he says. "It's something you just have to manage. You just can't do everything you want to do." As new students enroll, Boekhoff says, the district receives more state funding, lessening the drag.;;Without question, the investment of would affect significant changes on Orange County's landscape. One might assume the infusion of sales-tax proceeds, augmenting billions in other government funding, would enable government leaders to solve every unmet capital need.;;Not so, predicts the deputy executive director of the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council, which helps Orange, Seminole, Lake, Osceola and Brevard counties work together to manage growth. "I have a feeling this is not going to be the end of it. More money's going to be needed," says Greg Golgowski.;;A complete list of projects to be funded and more information can be found on the Internet at: (www.well-cc.org), (www.;citizensfirst.co.orange.fl.us/cbb/salestax/;index.htm) and (www.ocps.k12.fl.us/schoolboard/index.htm.)

More by Lawrence Budd


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