If you aren’t aware that there’s about to be a city election in Orlando on Nov. 3, you can hardly be blamed. The election wasn’t supposed to even happen this year – it was originally scheduled for April 5, 2016, three weeks after Florida’s March 2016 presidential primary election. Earlier this year, though, Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles sounded the alarm – what if it was too confusing for voters to have two elections so close to one another? What if they didn’t show up at the polls, thinking they’d already had an election? He urged the city to schedule its election to happen on primary day, or reschedule for a later date in 2016.
Instead, the Orlando City Council voted in May to move city elections to Nov. 3, giving people just six months to raise money and pull campaigns together if they wanted to run for one of the four seats up for grabs: that of Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and city commissioners Tony Ortiz (District 2), Patty Sheehan (District 4) and Sam Ings (District 6). Despite the truncated elections schedule, all of the incumbents except for Ortiz face challengers who say the old guard has got to go.
Now the election is just 15 days away. Do you know where your candidate stands on the issues? Are you ready to vote? Don’t worry if you’re having a hard time keeping up – we’ve got you covered with our Political Pop Quiz™, an on-the-spot exam of 11 random and relevant questions that gauge what the candidates know (or think they know) about the inner workings of Orlando.
To our readers: Happy voting!
To all our candidates: Good luck. If you get elected, don’t fuck it up.
It's been a little painful, if entertaining, to watch the three candidates vying for mayor take shots at one another over the past few weeks. Frankly, we're glad this election is almost over.
First things first: Everybody in this race has a nickname. Mayor John "Buddy" Dyer is seeking a fourth term as mayor, and he's got two challengers for the seat. Businessman and veteran Neil "Paul" Paulson and medical student "Sunshine" Linda Marie Grund have both qualified to run, and they have mainly been attacking Dyer for the city's decision to increase the property tax rate by 17.7 percent in 2014; that rate was adopted again in September for the 2015-2016 fiscal year. It was the first property-tax increase since 2008, and it raised taxes by one dollar per thousand dollars in property value, and it has given Paulson and Grund plenty of fodder upon which to base their criticism of the mayor.
Dyer, who has raised about $373,000 for his campaign so far, recently accused Paulson of trying to buy the election after Paulson loaned his own campaign $610,000 of his own personal money. Paulson denies Dyer's claim (his campaign treasurer's report does indicate that Paulson's campaign is primarily self-funded), and he also disputes an Orlando Sentinel story that alleges that a charity he runs – Help for Vets, Inc. – raises red flags when it comes to fundraising and structure. The Sentinel also took Paulson to task for using partisan campaign material in a nonpartisan race – something prohibited in nonpartisan races. Paulson says his attorney told him that particular statute was not being enforced.
"Mr. Dyer has broken that statute before, and done much worse, like being indicted," he says, then proceeds to criticize the newspaper. "I would compare the Sentinel to the National Enquirer, but I don't think it would be fair to the Enquirer."
Grund has distinguished herself in this expensive race by taking in no contribution money because she says it allows her to be completely transparent to voters. If elected, she says part of her platform would focus on preserving the wetlands near her home.
"The current makeup of the political process means someone like George Zimmerman could win this election because of name recognition, which brings in money," she says. "You lose touch with citizens and are influenced more easily."
Dyer says it's a serious responsibility to be not only mayor, but also a leader for the region on issues like same-sex marriage, establishing a domestic partnership registry and supporting a living wage for workers. He says his opponents focus solely on the tax hike and have lost sight of other issues. "I'm passionate about the city," he says. "My opponents haven't touched on city building or their vision for the future of the city. We've had a great last 10 years in terms of building consensus and collaboration and have moved the needle on so many issues, like growth. We're recognized as the city of the future and the most sustainable city in the Southeast United States."
1. What is the millage rate for the city of Orlando?
Dyer: 6.5. No, it's 6.65. There's a lot of numbers flying through your head all the time.
Grund: Six-something. It's higher than what it should be.
Paulson: It's raised up now to 6.65, but it used to be 5.65. It went up one with Mr. Dyer.
2. What is the average homeless population in Orlando?
Dyer: I know that we have a little over 100 homeless veterans left. We are making a real effort to end homelessness among our veterans by the end of the year. We have reduced that population by over 60 percent. It's hard to quantify that population because the point in time count is rarely accurate.
Grund: Too many. I think one is too many. Everyone in Orlando should have a home.
Paulson: That's a tough question because how would you be able to do a census of them? A lot of them live in the woods in East Orlando, and they're difficult to count. I think that's the best answer, that we just don't know.
3. What is the tallest building in Orlando?
Grund: The Vue.
Paulson: Probably SunTrust. It's pretty tall.
4. Is there such a thing as "too much" development downtown?
Dyer: There is such a thing as bad development for downtown. We want to encourage downtown, but we want to have the right type of development, like transit-oriented development that would take advantage of SunRail and more affordable units. We promoted getting a grocery store, movie theaters in downtown. We're recently in the process of buying Constitution Green, which could have been an example of bad development if we had allowed them to take down the tree.
Grund: Yes. We need to have green space. I think green space is important to downtown and the residents that live there.
Paulson: Yes, when it impacts neighborhoods and we divert money from them to build an opulent downtown. We've reached that point. That's the difference between Mr. Dyer and myself. We could have development if funded by donations, like the Dr. Phillips Center and also the new soccer stadium, which will be funded by private enterprise. We have an old arena that we borrowed $150 million from the state, and then Mr. Dyer imploded it and now it's just sitting as vacant land, which we owe money on even though it's gone. There are a lot of problems with the downtown venues, and we've neglected the neighborhoods.
5. What is the daily ridership goal for SunRail?
Grund: I have yet to ride SunRail, so that's on my to-do list. I know the numbers were down and they've had to alter it.
Paulson: More. The problem is at nighttime, it's not producing the ridership. The schedule has to be flexible and adjusted to ridership. It hasn't been producing enough money to pay for it, so we've been subsiding it. SunRail isn't the only solution; we need to have a mix of transportation systems, like Lynx, Lyft and Uber, which needs to be expanded.
6. A tree is about to fall over outside your house, and it's on the city's part of the property. Who do you call?
Dyer: If it's my tree, I'm responsible for it.
Grund: Orlando Utilities Commission.
Paulson: The landowner is responsible for the tree if it's on his property. I know city code enforcement requires the tree to be removed if it won't come back to life. The city has an arborologist who will come and tell us which type of tree we will have to replant. It's complicated.
7. Talk for a moment about the property tax rate. Is the current rate appropriate for the level of services the city provides?
Dyer: Yes. We have made substantial cuts to the city's budget while I've been mayor. We have reduced the overall number of employees by 350 people and increased police and fire employees by 175. When we went through the recession our property tax collections were $137 million and they were reduced to under $100 million. We did not want to raise the millage rate through the recession but with property tax caps and wanting to make sure we did not touch public safety, we raised the millage rate, and still did not collect the same as 2009. If we didn't raise rates, the only place we could have started cutting was the public safety budget, and we did not want to do that.
Grund: We could always do better. We could look at how we could do things at a lower cost with exceptional service. My charge is that buildings are being built, but I don't necessarily see services being increased throughout the city that the residents would actually use. For example, I have yet to go on SunRail or to the performing arts centers, and it's not that we can't have those things, but when we have issues that need to be addressed, like a homeless population of more than one, and leaders who are increasing their pay, I don't think that's a good direction to go. I do understand it's important to provide services, and the mayor doesn't act alone in the budget, but you are leading the way in setting the pace for what you believe the best strategy is.
Paulson: No. It's too high because Mr. Dyer raised it by 17.7 percent. He has approved a budget with the council to keep that tax hike for next year. Mr. Dyer and the budget have benefited from a 14 percent natural increase because property values went up. There should be enough money in the revenue fund to pay for everything, but the problem is that Mr. Dyer has not balanced the budget. About 24 percent of the budget is for interdepartmental things that's not accounted for. That's over $250 million. Additional money could be taken from OUC in the form of dividends so we don't have a tax increase. I will appoint a blue-ribbon committee to go through the budget and rank what programs are working and which are not.
8. What is the status of the long-awaited Creative Village in downtown Orlando?
Dyer: We have a meeting of the board of governors two days after the election to bring the UCF/Valencia campus master plan to get approval. We're currently installing the horizontal infrastructure and utilities, but have developed the School of Emerging Media, city labs and other structures. When the student housing and parking garage breaks ground, we will also be breaking ground on private residential property that will house the culinary school. A lot should happen in the next year.
Grund: On hold. I know they're trying to get funds. I think they were trying to get some of the tourist dollars. It's obviously not moving as fast as it could, or should be.
Paulson: We didn't get the money from the state Legislature. I think Gov. Scott vetoed $50 million. The future will tell us. Right now it's a project that doesn't have the funding.
9. Who appoints the city's Citizen Police Review Board? How do you think the process could be improved?
Dyer: The mayor makes recommendations to the City Council, and the Council approves them. I think we have a pretty good process in place.
Grund: The mayor. I think having more voices at the table could improve it.
Paulson: I believe the mayor does, but I think there's also input from the community and police department. I think the process could be improved when we work on retraining the minds of law enforcement officers to be more sensitive and have greater communication skills.
10. Where does Orlando rank among the top 50 American metro areas in terms of median wage? How could your economic policies make life more affordable for the average citizen?
Dyer: If we're not the lowest, we're right at the bottom. It's something we certainly need to improve on. The city has adopted a living wage policy for its employees and for contractors who work with the city. We have to look at other measures for income equality as well. One that is in control of the government is transportation, so expanding Lymmo, Lynx and SunRail for people who already have incomes are able to access jobs, daycare and educational opportunities is also important.
Grund: Not high enough. My answer has always been people drive the economic engines in any community if you provide an environment they will want to live, work, play and stay in.
Paulson: We're close to the bottom. I can't give you the exact number, but the problem is we're largely a service industry that depends on people to work in hotels and amusement parks, often times at minimum wage. The bad thing is Orlando has lost a lot of higher-paying jobs when the Navy base closed in 1989. We've also had some issues with Department of Defense jobs. I have connections in Washington, D.C., and I will make it my priority to bring high-paying defense jobs and light manufacturing jobs to Orlando.
BONUS: How many seats is the Orlando City Soccer Club's new stadium supposed to contain?
Dyer: That hasn't been determined yet because they have to finish the architectural plans, but they have increased size from 19,500 roughly to somewhere between 25,000 and 27,000 pending on the plans.
Grund: Not enough. My son loves soccer.
Paulson: One for each person that goes there. We don't want people to be sitting on each other.