FORECAST: West Orange leaders seek details, relief from proposed sales tax

Last year, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings proposed a one-cent sales tax increase to combat traffic and transportation issues.

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  • | 3:00 p.m. January 8, 2020
  • West Orange Times & Observer
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As the population of Orange County keeps growing and tourists continue to visit the theme parks and entertainment venues, the local roads will continue to see more and more traffic congestion.

To combat the traffic, as well as address other transportation and infrastructure needs, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings proposed in May 2019 a one-cent sales tax increase to help fund Lynx, SunRail and other transportation and infrastructure needs in Orange County. 

“With all of the tremendous growth, I have kind of honed in on a sales tax as a potential solution or revenue source because it is, really, the only source that, I believe, can produce the type of revenues that could be transformative in our community when we talk about transportation,” Demings said during his District 1 Transportation Town Hall Dec. 10.

The proposed increase would generate an estimated $600 million per year. Tourists and visitors would contribute 51% of the revenues generated by the proposed one-cent sales tax increase. Additionally, the tax would not be applied to essential food items, retail goods and services, prescription drugs or utilities.

Although it’s no secret traffic and transportation woes plague the entire county, most of the residential development is occurring in West Orange. As new homes continue to sprout in the area and new residents continue to fill those homes, more vehicles hit the already-crowded and congested roads. So what do the local municipalities of West Orange want out of the proposed sales tax increase?


Following a series of town hall meetings, Demings plans to unveil this spring a plan on how the generated revenue will be used. West Orange leaders say that plan is essential for determining whether they will pledge support.

Ocoee Mayor Rusty Johnson said he needs to know how much funding would go to the municipalities in Orange County. 

“The cities need to be able to have some kind of deal where we’d get money out of that (proposed sales tax) that would go towards — for instance — the roads,” Johnson said. “Ocoee Apopka Road needs to be widened. That’s the county’s (road), so we could take some of that money (from the sales tax) and help them widen Ocoee Apopka Road.”

Windermere Mayor Jim O’Brien said although he agrees that the county has a problem in regards to transportation, the specific details of the proposed sales tax need to be addressed before he can express any support for it.

“While we understand the issues, the specifics have not been addressed with enough details in terms of what this brings to the table for municipalities and where we will see relief in development of infrastructure in a systematic way,” O’Brien said. “That’s our issue: We’re lacking in details. So, it makes it difficult for us to really weigh in heavily.”

District 1 County Commissioner Betsy VanderLey said she is unsure whether she supports the proposed sales tax.

“I have some concerns in that I haven’t heard a defined scope of exactly what it is we would address,” she said. “What’s the list of projects we would address? I’m uncomfortable addressing it with a penny sales tax for a fixed number of years without knowing what that list is because is that going to fund everything that we need. Until I hear that, I’m not going to be supportive of anything as undefined as this is right now. 

“We’ve got to have it defined, and we’ve got to have it defensible, and it needs to make sense in terms of what we’re going to address,” VanderLey said.

So far, Demings said funding for SunRail and Lynx would come off the top of the revenues generated from the increase. Then, the county would consider funding toward transportation-related items as suggested by residents. 

Orange County Maypr Jerry Demings initially proposed the sales tax increase in May 2019.
Orange County Maypr Jerry Demings initially proposed the sales tax increase in May 2019.

“We would have to prioritize the list of projects that the towns and the cities would come up with,” Demings said. “Then we will create a proportionate-share methodology that would leverage the current capital improvement plans within their (municipality’s) respective jurisdiction. And so this would be new money that we want on top of what they’re already programming from.”

Although funding for Lynx could potentially be a benefit to the West Orange, SunRail would not help the area at all. 

“Lynx is really the key for my district,” VanderLey said. “SunRail is not going to reach District 1. It’s not going to serve District 1. Not that it’s not valid where it is, but it’s a static line. Lynx is dynamic. Lynx can respond to changing job centers (and) it can respond to changing populations far more nimbly than any rail system ever will be able to.”


Ocoee Assistant City Manager Craig Shadrix said West Orange has many needs related to connectivity of major roadways and thoroughfares. 

“The number of lane miles for a roadway is not proportionate to moving traffic — it’s how you disperse the traffic that moves traffic,” Shadrix said. “The network itself that we have out here needs major work. … There’s not a lot of great east-west roads through this region. There’s several new roads that need to happen, and then there’s several existing roads that need to become the arterial (roads) that they were intended to be.” 

Oakland Town Manager Steve Koontz said the proposed sales tax is a good opportunity to meet the transit and transportation needs of the county. He added that Oakland only has one county road that runs through it, County Road 438/Oakland Avenue, which could benefit from some modern improvements. 

“(Oakland Avenue is) an older road — it’s been around for decades,” Koontz said. “If you were to build that road today, you’d probably build it to a higher standard. It would be more of a road that would connect the community. Right now, it’s just kind of a rural section, two-lane road. There’s sidewalks just on parts of it. There’s no real lighting on it. It really doesn’t (offer) that community kind of connection of a road that you’d really want in this day and age.

“Transit-wise and regional-wise, there are some bigger picture things to look at,” he said. “What kind of transit opportunities are there to try and take some of those cars out of the road? … From a transit standpoint, we have no real presence of Lynx out here, so that’s another opportunity.”

Winter Garden City Manager Mike Bollhoefer said many of the road systems in West Orange are failing. Despite the rapid growth in the area, there haven’t been many road or infrastructure improvements.

“With Horizon West and all the building to the west in Lake County, they’ve had all this building going on for 20 years and significant arterial collector roads have been built,” Bollhoefer said. “You’ve had 20 years of building without any significant improvements to infrastructure. Transportation, I think, is the area’s biggest problem. If done correctly, the road tax is a good thing — as long as we use it to fix those road systems that need to be fixed.”  

Bollhoefer added that more on and off ramps are needed at the major highways that run through West Orange. He also said the county should utilize other methods aside from traffic lights at intersections.

“You have to be more innovative with your intersections,” Bollhoefer said. “It’s not always (just about) using traffic lights — use roundabouts.” 

Windermere Town Manager Robert Smith said the town is in need of relief from the traffic that runs through it. Much of the traffic and transportation issues the town experiences can be attributed to county development projects outside of Windermere’s jurisdiction.  He added much of the traffic that runs through the town of Windermere is from individuals trying to get to the Horizon West area.

“Horizon West is 4% of the entire county, and it represents 66% of the growth of the entire county,” Smith said. “We did a (traffic) study in 2017 … and what it showed and demonstrated was that 70% of the traffic that’s coming through town is coming from the Horizon West area. … We’re having to deal with other jurisdictional approvals, and that’s not fair to us because it’s our residents that are feeling the pain of (county) decisions.

“With Horizon West development and a lot of the other development, they are pretty much rubber-stamping these things without making sure that the proper infrastructure is in place before they are taking on new residents,” Smith later added. “The floodgates are not closing anytime soon, or I don’t see that happening anytime soon. They’ve been opened, but it can be stopped.”

O’Brien said the cut-through traffic greatly impacts the quality of life for Windermere town residents.

“For us, it’s pretty personal because what you see out here is life-changing to our community — it impacts the quality of life,” O’Brien said. “(The traffic) causes people to leave the appropriate arterial roadways and go off into the dirt roads to cut through. It decreases the quality of life we have here … that we try to protect.”


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