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West Orange Times & Observer Saturday, Aug. 20, 2022 3 months ago

Opinions differ on transportation tax

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The referendum — championed by Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings — seeks to raise an estimated $600 million per year to be used for solutions to various transportation issues.
by: Annabelle Sikes Staff Writer

When voters enter the polling booths in November, they will be asked to mark a bubble to decide whether Orange County should implement a one-cent sales tax increase to fund transpiration needs.

The referendum — championed by Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings — seeks to raise an estimated $600 million per year to be used for solutions to various transportation issues.

“It will be an economic driver that will create jobs, opportunities and connectivity,” Demings said at a Orange County Commission transportation initiative work session earlier this year. “It will be an evolutionary process that will be something going forward for decades. Our residents are frustrated by the current state of affairs in Orange County. It is important they see themselves benefiting from this.”

But West Orange and Southwest Orange voters differ on the potential direct benefit this tax will provide to their community.

PATH TO THE BALLOT

After years of discussion and about five hours of discussion in April, Orange County commissioners voted (4-3) to put the transportation tax proposal on the ballot. 

The current sales tax rate in Orange County is 6.5%, the lowest of the four counties surrounding the Orlando area. 

Demings said tourists would be the most affected by this potential sales tax increase, with county estimates showing tourists paid about 51% of taxes in Orange County. 

The exceptions to this increase would be groceries, prescriptions and medications, medical supplies, and utilities. 

“West Orange County is the fastest-growing area in our county, and we know new infrastructure, safety and network improvements will be critical to accommodate that growth,” Demings said. “That is why it is so important for voters to support the one-cent sales tax that will be dedicated to funding over $270 million in transportation projects identified by the cities of Ocoee, Winter Garden, Windermere and Oakland over a 20-year period.”

The total value of projects submitted by respective municipalities in west Orange County for local projects to be funded through the sales tax is $270 million.

The amount includes $17,500 for the town of Oakland, $130,000 for the city of Ocoee, $30,300 for the town of Windermere and $42,900 for the city of Winter Garden.

In addition, in reviewing sales tax revenues for county funded projects, the value of the proposed projects in District 1, which covers all of the Horizon West area, is approximately $913 million on the roadway program alone, according to Orange County. The amount does not include items such as bike/pedestrian and intersection improvements.

Demings explained the plan outlines a variety of improvements geared toward pedestrian and cyclist safety. It also includes the use of smart technology to reduce traffic crashes, accelerating the maintenance and improvements to roadways and improving access to public transit.

COMMUNITY CONVERSATION

District 1 Commissioner Nicole Wilson said she held a number of meetings in the community, and the concerns about how the referendum would impact or improve West Orange County dominated the discussions.

Wilson said although she believes the referendum should be decided on by the voters, she voted “no” to placing the referendum on the ballot.

“I couldn’t get behind the timing of it, and I didn’t think there was sufficient information about how it would benefit people in West Orange County,” she said. “People are hurting right now economically … and I feel like we weren’t being considered enough for the comprehensive plans that I felt were really necessitated based on population.”

Based on the meetings, Wilson said residents wanted to see more investment in walkable, bike-able areas and cited safety as a major concern. She said many felt it was not the right time to add to the cost of living in the area and had concerns on whether they are matching the right infrastructure to the development. 

Horizon West resident Andy Ramos said he does not mind paying local taxes if it will benefit the community. 

“It’s a good thing; mass transit here sucks,” Ramos said. “I understand that some people in our community feel like mass transit isn’t a factor for us here in Horizon West, but I have to commute to Orlando every day, which desperately needs this money. We could also use some bike lanes.”

Conversely, some Horizon West residents aren’t as concerned with improvements to the county’s LYNX bus service. Moreover, they question whether SunRail ever will achieve the solutions it seeks.

“I live in Independence and work downtown,” Horizon West resident Nick Czerkies said. “I grew up in Chicagoland, traveling a lot on the L train, and have spent some time traveling by rail in the U.K. I’d love to have a rail system that could get me out of my car and into a train for my daily commute, but I don’t see anything in the plans for this tax money that is going to do that. SunRail has been a failure, because it doesn’t go anywhere that people want to go, and it doesn’t run with enough frequency to be effective. It’s almost like it was designed to fail. Perfect example: I work at Orlando Health, and we have a SunRail station on our campus. I need to get to the airport from work on Thursday, and the SunRail doesn’t go to the airport.”

Wilson said she was disappointed the administration that formulated the plan did not utilize more of the information gathered from residents.

“It was my first red flag that they weren’t listening,” Wilson said. “I found it really disappointing that the actual mayor’s team, when they rolled out their town halls, that there was no opportunity for the public to speak. How do you know what the public is thinking if you don’t open the mic?”

Horizon West resident Dennis Mattinson said he also was against the tax.

“The government is grossly negligent when it comes to operating transit systems (not just locally but nationwide), and any tax to increase transit services just compounds the need for these entities to rely on local, state and federal subsidies to stay afloat,” Mattinson said. “As for the impact to my section of Orange County, in this day and age where people are working more remotely than ever, no transit system will be able to replace any convenience that someone gives up by ditching their vehicle for a train or bus ride. You simply cannot build a system that will be convenient enough to make it worth the effort.”

VIEW THE PLAN: To learn more, visit ocfl.net/transportation.

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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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