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West Orange Times & Observer Friday, Aug. 5, 2022 2 weeks ago

Candidate Q&A: Kelly Semrad, Orange County Mayor

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Read our exclusive Q&A with Orange County Mayor candidate Kelly Semrad.
by: Annabelle Sikes Staff Writer

BIO:

Age: 45 years old

City/town of residence: Orlando (Unincorporated East Orange County)

Family: Life partner Umut Kocaman. Family name is Martinez. We have two children: Altair “Hawk” Martinez Kocaman (son, 5 years old) and Forest Hope Martinez Kocaman (daughter, 2 years old). We have many fur babies. Our trapped and released feral cats named after beans: Soy, Lima, Jelly, Coco, Nicke bean; Our indoor cats: June bug & Gizzy; Our dogs: Brownie & Button.

Education: PhD Hospitality Management, UCF (2010), MS Sports Management, Event Management, St. Thomas University (2003), BS Communications, Business, University of Oklahoma (2000)

Qualifications: Internationally recognized expert in socio economic policy reform for tourism destinations. Experienced in tourist development tax reform to ensure the industry tax improves citizens’ quality of life. The only candidate refusing developer and special interest campaign donations. Internationally recognized expert in revenue and risk management. Vice Chair, Save Orange County, Inc. (sustainable smart growth organization). Co-Chair, District 5 Neighborhood Advisory Council. Member, 2021 Orange County Redistricting Committee. Extensive professional and educational experience in Orange County’s number one economic contributor – Tourism and Hospitality Industry. UCF associate professor, Teacher for 22 years. Conservation Environmentalist. Community advocate and activist. Rural Settlement defender

What are the key differences between you and your opponents?

I’m the only candidate who refuses developer and special interest campaign donations. I’m ensuring that people know my efforts are to be accountable only to the people of Orange County (OC). I’m the only candidate that is with and for the people for affordable housing and rents in OC. I’m the only candidate in the trenches with the people fighting for sustainable smart growth in OC. I’m the only candidate that has helped organize a formal incorporation to protect OC natural resources and lands, property rights of rural settlements/enclaves, aquifer recharge areas, green spaces, and wildlife (Save Orange County, Inc.). I’m the only candidate that is forwarding an urban area service boundary/rural boundary as a tax cost saving mechanism for all of OC citizens. I’m the only candidate that is forwarding a tourist development tax restructure to ensure that the strain that tourism puts on our communities comes back to enhance our quality of life. I’m the only candidate that is not concerned with the 1000s of people moving here each day but instead is saying we need to worry about the people who live here and ensure their quality of life. I’m the only candidate that is fighting to protect Split Oak Forest. I’m the only candidate that is fighting for our right to clean water. I’m the only candidate that stated she will actively lobby to have more flexibility with our tourist development tax. I’m the only candidate with a PhD in our number one economic contributor – Tourism and Hospitality Industry. I’m the only candidate who is an environmentalist both in practice & public policy advocacy. I’m the only candidate that actively fights against urban sprawl. I’m the only candidate that speaks to the massive homeless issues, human trafficking, environmental destruction, and blatant disregard for the will of voters in OC. I’m the only candidate that possesses the educational expertise, industry experience, community advocacy experience to put the will of the people and voters as the number one priority for OC followed by protecting our environment.

Why should voters cast their votes for you?

The time and era for Orange County citizens fighting so hard to have their voice be heard and their community needs satisfied ends by electing Dr. Kelly Semrad for Orange County mayor. I’m from the people and for the people and our environment. I believe that special interests and developers’ greed has no place in our local government. That is why I am refusing donations from special interests and developers. It is time for the people and our communities to come first. Orange County has experienced continuous economic growth for years. Unfortunately, we have not experienced the economic development that needs to accompany the growth. Our schools are crowded. Our roads are broken. Our mass transit is inadequate. Our infrastructure is far behind. Our crime is increasing. Our water quality is decreasing. Our affordable homes are depleted. Our green space is being paved over and our wetlands infilled to accommodate the greed of developers. 

We ask what is it that we must do to be heard? What is it that we must do to put our communities first? We take time off work, get babysitters, rearrange schedules to go to Board of County Commissioner Meetings and sign up to speak for 3 minutes. We make individual appointments with Commissioners. We attend public meetings. We send emails. We make calls. We even get bipartisan support to pass referendums to our county constitution and we (the people) still are not heard. It’s worse, we are ignored. 

I’m running for Orange County Mayor for aggressive policy reform to enhance our quality of life, ensure equity and to protect our environment. 

What are the three most pressing issues facing Orange County today, and how will you address them?

Affordable housing. We have an affordable housing emergency. And, we have a liveable wage crisis in Orange County. We also have an emerging issue for our middle-class homeowners where we have a surplus in our ad valorem tax, but we have not seen a millage (rate) incentive to offset the surplus. What does this mean? This means that our property values have significantly increased, which means that our property taxes will go up.  This is going to feed the affordable housing impact on our local economy as homeowners scramble to try and find a means to pay higher property taxes.  

The incumbent speaks favorably to his Housing for All Trust Fund that will result in 30,300 new affordable housing places to live. However, there are significant issues with the trust fund beyond the obvious that it is a 10-year action plan.

The fund does nothing for the people that are evicted due to soaring rent prices that have increased on average 30% in one year.  Once evicted it makes it very difficult for people to rent elsewhere.

11,000 (nearly 1/3 of the units) would be priced for households that make between $26,000 - $83,000 a year. This limits the amount of units affordable for the most in need in the lower economic bracket.

19,300 units (about 64% of units) would be priced for those households that make between $83,000 -$97,000 a year. Again, this limits the number of units affordable for the most in need in the lower economic bracket. 

These pricing brackets are simply outpricing our people that need affordable housing.  We are seeing gentrification occur in neighborhoods. We are being outpriced from living in our own communities. 

Here is what needs to be done:

  1. Declare the 1-year housing emergency
  2. Establish a rural boundary to ensure that we (taxpayers) get the most return on investment for our taxpayer’s infrastructural investments that help support affordable housing.
  3. Incentivize massive urban infill with the conversion and rezoning of nontraditional properties for affordable housing (e.g., partner with hospitality industry and convert closed motels, and malls to affordable housing).
  4. Concentrate on building smaller homes that go vertical instead of horizontal sprawl.  Land is a finite resource. We must build up to reduce taxpayer costs of supporting sprawl.
  5. Stop discussing what we (the county) should be doing for the 1000s of people moving here each week and focus on the people who live here. Our job is to focus on the quality of life of our current constituents. In other words, we need to be building housing that answers the needs of our people not the future people moving here.
  6. Stop approving luxury apartments, townhomes, and houses for the people that are moving here and find solutions for affordable housing for the people that live here now.
  7. Acknowledge that if we don’t solve the affordable housing emergency our homeless population will significantly increase. (e.g., a chronically homeless person costs the taxpayer an average of $35,578 per year).  An increasing homeless population is terribly sad and unfair to people but also results in tax increases for all of OC residents.
  8. Acknowledge that our affordable housing crisis is going to extend from vulnerable populations to the middle classes if nothing is done. This will occur as we see a surplus of ad valorem tax increase and no millage (rate) incentive.
  9. Implement ordinances to limit land speculation
  10. Invest in OC public housing
  11. OC land investment 

These are only a few of the steps that need to be taken to address the affordable housing emergency in Orange County.

Homelessness. Orange County has the most homeless people in Central Florida. Our homeless population includes vulnerable populations: veterans, families, children, LGBTQ+ youth, mentally ill, disabled, elderly, marginalized communities, to name a few. 

Orange County is above the national average with the number of veterans living on the streets and the number of homeless people with disabilities. Orange County has a serious issue with homeless children living in motels, shelters, and cars/vans/tents/parks.

When you walk the streets of Orange County, you see an increase in homeless people. Our nonprofit organizations work relentlessly to combat homelessness. CARES Act funding is used to help the growing number of Orange County homeless people. However, that money will expire in September. This will lead to increases in the number of people struggling to find housing. 

The lack of affordable housing feeds our homeless crisis. Families are paying up to 50% of their income towards rent resulting in little money to cover food and gas price increases. This is not sustainable for our families and our homeless population will increase.

Here is what needs to be done: 

  1. We need to develop a better means of determining how many homeless people we have in our county. Currently, the incumbent counts homeless people once a year on one night. It is referred to as a “Point in Time Count.” People who are seen sleeping on streets, in woods, in cars are counted. However, those people that are not seen, or who are staying in a motel until their money runs out or staying with friends and family are not counted. The County does not have a true understanding on the actual number of homeless people. This needs to be improved.  
  2. Work with Orange County Public Schools to understand how many homeless children are in OC.  During pre-pandemic times OCPS identified 9,676 homeless children.  We need organized outreach to help these children.
  3. We need formal education with our industry partners for them to understand that it behooves their businesses to reduce our homeless population.
  4. We need formal education with all taxpayers to understand that it is beneficial to reduce our homeless population not only from a human component but also from a taxpayer perspective. It costs taxpayers approximately $35,000 a year for a chronically homeless person.
  5. We need to partner and support our local and national foundations and nonprofits that are working relentlessly to reduce homelessness.
  6. Every BCC meeting should have an agenda line item to discuss how we can help reduce homelessness for our OC citizens and how we are improving.
  7. The mayor must provide homeless people with a voice given that they do not have a vote to exercise their voice in our society.

Stop Urban Sprawl. In 2016, Orange County was determined by a court/judge to be violating its Comprehensive Land Use Plan and demonstrated growth patterns and trends that promoted urban sprawl.  Orange County has since failed to implement any change to the growth and development patterns.  This results in failing roads, traffic jams, crowded schools, increased crime, increased costs of living, environmental destruction, and decreased quality of life for residents, to name a few of the detriment harms to communities.  

What needs to be done:

  1. An urban service area boundary needs to be determined and enforced
  2. A rural boundary needs to be determined and enforced
  3. The Charter Review Committee may consider if adopting these boundaries into our county charter would benefit residents
  4. The boundaries need to be recognized in our comprehensive land use plan
  5. The boundaries need to be recognized in our future land use map
  6. We need to incentivize urban infill and repurposing of closed strip malls, big box stores, and motels.
  7. We need to incentivize building up instead of out. 
  8. Wetland mitigation policy reform needs to be conducted to protect our water.
  9. Wildlife corridor policy reform needs to be conducted to protect our people from wildlife encounters (e.g., bear) and to protect our wildlife from people encounters.
  10. We need to stop approving developments that are in areas that have no infrastructure to support the developments. It unfairly taxes the people while the developers make money.

In District 1, growth and growing pains continue to be important issues for voters. As mayor, how will you work toward solutions regarding those issues?

As mayor, my job is to represent the voice and the needs of the voters and the community, which includes the environment.  We need to have greater local government participation so that we can represent our constituents. I am the only candidate refusing developer and special interests’ donations so that I may ensure people that I represent the people and the environment.  To encourage additional participation in local government, I will move the Board of County Commissioner Meetings to a day and time when people do not have to take time off work to attend and provide their thoughts for the BCC members to incorporate into County plans and visions.  Additionally, we must recognize that not all people can come to the County Admin building during the BCC meeting. Therefore, we must provide alternative means for people to participate in a mixed modality form.  

Further, I am an opponent of urban sprawl. Any development application that reaches my desk as mayor that promotes urban sprawl is a no go for my vote.  Any development that proposes to fill in a class I or class II wetland is a no go for my vote. I will listen to the voters. 

District 1 constituents have differences of opinion regarding the representation they receive from the sitting District 1 commissioner. As mayor, how would you address those concerns? As mayor, how will you work toward solutions regarding those issues?

I have been a citizen in a district that has experienced growing pains that were very important issues for voters.  I reside in District 5. At one point, we had a former Commissioner that encouraged and voted for a large urban sized development in our rural service area. Our roadways were failing. The surrounding property owners and the community at large did not support the urban sized development.  The people came together, and we tossed that commissioner out and elected a community advocate.  However, this still has mostly left us one vote short at the BCC of the community having our voices heard and our vision of growth being adopted for our district.

As mayor, I think we need to investigate a means of leveling the playing field for people.  I don’t think that it is right that each citizen gets to vote on only one district commissioner, yet all six district commissioners get to vote on what happens in our districts.  This practice is representation without accountability to the citizens.  We cannot keep other district commissioners in office if they do a good job for our district and we cannot get rid of them if they do a bad job representing our district.  It’s representation without accountability. We need to address how we make each district commissioner accountable to not only their residents but also the citizens of other districts where they are voting on important issues for those constituents.

If you had a magic wand, what would you change immediately in Orange County?

If I had a magic wand, I would put people and our environment first. Meaning I would stop the influence of special interests and developers’ greed for chronic overdevelopment. I would allow for our hard infrastructure (affordable homes, roads, schools, mass transit, etc.), our soft infrastructure (children services, homeless services, and affordable housing services, etc.), and our environmental protection and restoration to be the priority.  To be frank, I am not interested in the 1000s of people that are going to move here every week. I am interested and invested in improving our people’s quality of life, right to equity, and our environment that are here now. 

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Annabelle Sikes is a staff writer at the West Orange Times & Observer, Southwest Orange Observer and OrangeObserver.com. She graduated in May 2021 from the University of Central Florida with a bachelor's degree in journalism and a minor in sociology.  Her past...

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