Free cops for the rich

As marketing strategies go, Belle Isle administrators seemed to have a winner. They pledged last spring to reduce the tax bill of 5,000 county residents in unincorporated areas north and east of the small, affluent city if said residents agreed to be annexed into Belle Isle.

The city spent $21,000 on its marketing campaign -- opponents spent about $600 -- but the annexation effort was a huge flop. More than 70 percent of the county residents voted against it, in part because they realized Belle Isle, a city of 5,500, wanted more real-estate taxes to pay for chronic street and drainage problems.

The vote, however, did more than set back Belle Isle's annexation plans. It also provided an opportunity for county administrators, namely District 5 commissioner Ted Edwards, to scrutinize the city's tax structure. What Edwards discovered was that, through a quirk of history, Belle Isle has not paid for on-duty police protection in decades, even though on-duty Orange County sheriff's deputies respond to calls there.

The 78-year-old city has never had its own police force. Instead, it contracts with the sheriff's department for off-duty deputies to patrol the streets. When the off-duty cops need backup, they call the sheriff's office.

Belle Isle pays $200,000 for the off-duty deputies. The county picks up the tab for the on-duty officers, to the tune of about $1 million a year, Edwards discovered.

Since the late 1970s, the county has charged homeowners in unincorporated areas a service tax to pay for the things that cities normally provide, like police and fire protection. Belle Isle, which became a city in 1924, was in a kind of no-man's-land: Its residents didn't have to pay the county tax because it's incorporated, but city officials never had the nerve to raise taxes to pay for police protection. So for 78 years, county residents have had to subsidize their rich neighbors, to the tune of millions of dollars.

"It's become obvious that Belle Isle is taking advantage of free police service," says Edwards.

Edwards will try to convince other members of the County Board of Commissioners at their Sept. 17 meeting that Belle Isle should be paying more law-enforcement money. It will be interesting to see how Chairman Richard T. Crotty responds because he has owned a home in Belle Isle for 12 years. Crotty will have to decide whether to increase his own taxes as well as those of former Chairman Linda Chapin, who also lives in the south Orange County city.

Edwards already has an ally in Commissioner Clarence Hoenstine, whose district includes Belle Isle. "There's got to be a fairness about this," Hoenstine says. "The only fair way is if everybody pays the same. A few of Belle Isle's leaders, in my opinion, don't represent the people. Their way is not going to work for everyone."

Edwards would also like to see two cities inside Walt Disney World -- Lake Buena Vista and Bay Lake -- pay the county service tax, which would increase Disney's taxes more than $15 million.

Disney officials say that they already pay more than enough taxes. In addition to the $67 million that Disney is levied in county property taxes, the park also pays $112,000 a year for each of 23 off-duty sheriff's deputies, who enhance the park's 750-member, $30 million security force.

Edwards, though, says his wish is for Disney to be taxed exactly the same as other companies. "Disney's argument is that they pay for what they use," Edwards says. "But what about other `companies` that pay for more than they use?"

By his estimation, Disney still comes up short because the park employs 54,000 workers -- the largest single-site employer in the nation -- who overwhelmingly burden county transportation and social welfare resources.

Caught between the county, Belle Isle and Disney is Orange County Sheriff Kevin Beary, who is asking county commissioners for a $131.6 million budget next year, an $8 million increase over this year's budget. Edwards would like Beary to lean on Belle Isle, Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista for more money before the commission approves a budget increase for the Sheriff's office.

But Beary is reluctant to do so. "We're not a taxing authority," says spokesman Capt. Bernie Presha, "nor are we a tax collector."

If the three cities decide not to negotiate, Edwards anticipates that the county will have to play hardball. Ultimately he wants to ask Tallahassee legislators to enact a law allowing counties to charge cities that don't provide their own law enforcement.

If that fails, as a last resort, he would like to see the sheriff withhold police protection from cities that don't pay enough for law enforcement. The county attorney's office has even researched whether the sheriff must respond to calls in such cities. (What they found out is that, at a bare minimum, the sheriff has to respond to riots, unlawful assemblies or to anybody disturbing the peace.)

So it's unlikely Belle Isle, Lake Buena Vista and Bay Lake would lack emergency coverage, even if they won't pay for it. But that doesn't mean the cities are off the hook.

Like insurance coverage, residents all across the county pay for police protection they'll never use. They pay not only because they have to, but because some day they might need help.

"It's like in the old days," Edwards says. "People had to pay for fire protection. If they didn't, their house burned to the ground."


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