NewsOF MOUSE AND MAN
Bob Lanier is running for president of UNITE HERE Local 737, a union that represents some 12,000 Walt Disney World service employees, about half of whom are union members. Lanier, who works at the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue in the Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground, has over 30 years of union membership – he started at Disney World in 1975 – and a long history as a shop steward representing members in disputes with management.
“I know what it feels like to get pushed around,” Lanier wrote on a mailer he sent to union members, “and I know how to fight back for our rights. I will always stand up for you, and together we can WIN.”
That part is standard rhetoric for union elections. What’s different about this election is that Lanier’s campaign goes beyond a promise to fight for increases in wages and benefits. He wants to challenge the way Disney is structured, and he wants to end what he says are unfair tax breaks the company gets courtesy of the Florida Legislature.
“Their best friend is silence,” he says. “This is something people try not to mention. No one talks about any of this.”
“This” is the Reedy Creek Improvement District, a special taxing district the Legislature granted to Walt Disney World in 1967. Reedy Creek encompasses 25,000 acres in Orange and Osceola counties – about 75 percent of which is Disney property – and two cities, Lake Buena Vista and Bay Lake.
It’s a very advantageous arrangement for the Mouse.
A 1995 story in American Prospect magazine reported that then–Lake Buena Vista Mayor William Sterner – who is no longer mayor, but who still serves on the city’s council – was a computer-operations supervisor in Disney’s corporate offices. Had he been fired, he would have been evicted from the trailer park in which he and 40 other non-union Disney employees lived, and thus lost his mayorship.
The American Prospect story portrays the mayorship of Lake Buena Vista as largely toothless: “Lake Buena Vista’s council executes only one order of consequence each year: turning over control of roads, utilities, inspections and licensing to an entity called the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which in turn is a creature of the Disney Co.” Reedy Creek’s board of supervisors is elected by landowners – which means, essentially, by Disney.
Disney confirms that this is still the case today. Mickey Shiver, the city manager for Bay Lake, says that both cities have populations of roughly 20 – about a quarter of the population serves on the cities’ councils – most of whom live in manufactured housing owned by Disney. If Disney so desired, it could evict them, although Shiver says he has never heard of that happening.
The essence of the arrangement is that Disney governs and pays taxes to itself. The company earned that right in 1967, when it convinced the Florida Legislature to grant autonomy normally reserved for cities based primarily on its plans for the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.
Back then, EPCOT was going to be a real city, with real people living in it. Of course that never came to fruition; instead, EPCOT is a theme park. (Disney’s autonomy did have immediate rewards; the company says that under late-1960s Orange County building codes, it couldn’t have built its Cinderella Castle.)
Lanier argues that the Reedy Creek Improvement District costs state and local governments some $50 million a year in taxes that Disney would otherwise have to pay. And in fact, Disney’s status does lead to tax breaks. Although the company is Orange County’s largest single taxpayer – it pays about $75 million a year in property taxes – it does not pay impact fees or utility taxes. It also escapes the county’s Municipal Service Taxing Unit, which pays for law enforcement fees, Orange County deputy comptroller Jim Moye says.
Disney avoids utility taxes because such taxes are only levied on unincorporated portions of the county. Instead of the tax, Disney pays about $56 million to Reedy Creek, which uses the money to fund infrastructure improvements on Disney property.
Disney reached an agreement with Orange County in 1989 that exempted it from impact fees it would otherwise have to pay, although it did compensate the county $13.8 million as a one-time settlement, in exchange for the county promising not to challenge Disney’s governmental arrangement for seven years. (Though the seven years have passed, Orange County hasn’t brought up the issue since.) Disney also pays for police protection from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, to the tune of $5.1 million a year. (Disney has its own security force, but its security officers don’t have law enforcement authority, Moye says.)
That seems to be a pretty good deal, based on the fact that in 2005 a county comptroller’s office analysis stated that the arrangement to patrol Disney property should cost between roughly $13 million and $16 million, based on media and county reports.
On Disney’s side of the ledger, it should be noted that the two cities in Reedy Creek do not receive sales tax money that is refunded to other cities.
Orlando, for example, expects to receive almost $31 million in sales taxes during the next fiscal year; Apopka will get about $5 million and Winter Park, about $4 million. Lake Buena Vista and Bay Lake will get nothing, even though Disney generated $390 million in state and local sales, use, communications and resort taxes in 2006.
Disney says Reedy Creek has been examined repeatedly, and it passes muster.
“There have been multiple government/independent reviews of RCID,” Disney spokeswoman Kim Prunty writes in an e-mail, “which have found that the district continues to meet its purpose and that it is subject to many state and federal regulations that ensure it remains accountable and continues to meet its public purpose. These reviews are far more credible than any one person’s opinion.”
Lanier counters that Disney’s profits are strong, and there is no reason for it to continue to get special treatment. In the second quarter of 2006 alone, the company’s theme park division netted $214 million in profits, up from $183 million the previous quarter. Disney’s worldwide theme park and resort division posted revenues of $10.6 billion for fiscal year 2007, including $2.8 billion in the final quarter, according to Disney financial statements.
The second plank in his platform is getting rid of Disney’s college-worker program, which he says imports thousands of low-wage earners every year to work for Disney, depressing the local employment market and keeping wages down.
“The college program is not a college program,” he says. “All it really is, is a migrant college-worker program.”
Disney has an average of 4,000 college-program workers at any given time, and the theme park isn’t thinking of abandoning the program, which it says aids in the recruitment of cast members. But even if it did, Prunty says, that wouldn’t greatly affect the theme park’s overall operation. “When you’re looking at 4,000 [workers] out of 62,000, that’s a pretty small number,” Prunty says.
The overarching theme with Lanier’s candidacy is that Disney owes Central Florida taxpayers, and its own employees, more of the profits. His plan is to use Reedy Creek as a lever to get what he wants.
“It’s something we can use to negotiate,” he says.
How? By playing politics. As a union president, Lanier believes he’ll have stature with state lawmakers, and he could use it to pressure politicians into amending, or revoking, parts of the Reedy Creek charter (which, incidentally, gives Disney the right to build its own airport, among other things, if they wish).
He has no illusions about how hard Disney would fight a change that profound. “None of this [dismantling the RCID] would be voluntarily done by Disney,” he says.
Perhaps more importantly, this is an issue on no one’s lips right now. If any local governments are unhappy with their relationship with Disney, they’re not saying so.
Which means Lanier is tilting at windmills.
The mail-in election ballots for the union presidency will be counted Dec. 30, and the winner, whether it’s Lanier or his opponent Cher Wells (who could not be reached for this story) will face an uphill battle.
Florida is a right-to-work state, which means that Disney’s cast members don’t have to join unions to gain the benefits of union membership. As a result, many don’t join and the unions’ clout is significantly diminished.
But, win or lose, Lanier is raising two questions being asked by no one else: Why does the state still grant Disney authority intended for municipalities, even though the company never fulfilled the promise of making EPCOT a real city 40 years ago? And more importantly, is this arrangement good for Central Florida taxpayers?