Since Mayor Buddy Dyer reclaimed his mayor’s chair after a short-lived indictment in 2005, he’s wagered his legacy on building the “community venues,” the massive $1 billion-plus trifecta of public works projects that includes refurbishing the Citrus Bowl and building a new performing arts center and arena.
On July 23, the city will likely sign off on an interlocal agreement with Orange County to finance and build the venues. The vote will probably pass 6-1, with city commissioner Phil Diamond the only expected dissenter. Then the agreement goes to the more reticent Orange County Commission July 26.
There, all bets are off. Because the venues include tourist taxes, the agreement won’t pass unless backers get five of the seven commissioners’ approval. At least three commissioners – Tiffany Moore, Mildred Fernandez and Teresa Jacobs have expressed qualms about parts of the financing package, especially the Orlando Magic’s $50 million contribution to the $480 million arena. Even commissioner Linda Stewart, an ardent venues supporter, says the Magic needs to pay $30 million more.
And then there’s Fred Brummer, the board’s most conservative member. He’s a vocal opponent of the venues because he doesn’t like that public dollars will be subsidizing a private, for-profit business like an NBA basketball team. Brummer wants to throw a kink into the plan.
He is expected to offer a motion to put the venues to a countywide referendum. (An aide rejected Orlando Weekly’s interview request, but confirmed that Brummer wants to let voters decide.) To survive, Brummer’s motion needs a second from another commissioner. If no one seconds his motion, it dies. But if someone does, all hell may break loose.
A second opens it up to discussion and then a vote. So, in front of what will surely be an overflow crowd and television cameras, commissioners would have to say why they think you shouldn’t get to vote on the biggest public works proposal in the region’s history, a proposal that, were something to go wrong, would mire the city and county in debt for decades.
Perhaps Brummer might even get the four votes he’d need to put this thing to a ballot. If nothing else, it would make for uncomfortable political theater, and it would haunt public officials who dared to tell voters they shouldn’t have a say in these controversial projects.
(Interesting side note: The Magic like to compare their contribution to the arena with that of the San Antonio Spurs; the Spurs paid about 15 percent toward construction costs of their venue in 1999. But the voters of San Antonio got to approve that in a referendum.)
Will Brummer get a second? Orlando Weekly called the six commissioners and the Orange County mayor’s office to find out. Most of the commissioners didn’t want to talk about it.
Commissioner Fernandez’s office says she hasn’t made up her mind. Commissioners Moore and Jacobs didn’t respond to calls seeking comment. County spokesman Steve Triggs says that, as far as Mayor Rich Crotty is concerned, it’s the commissioners’ decision. Commissioners Stewart and Bill Segal both say they’ll neither second the motion nor vote for it if someone else does.
“That’s what we get elected to do,” Segal says. “At what point do you bring everything to the people? My belief is that you get elected to make these big decisions.”
Segal also worries about the practical issues related to a referendum: How would the ballot language be phrased? Would each item be presented separately?
“I don’t expect the public would be able to understand everything,” Stewart says, noting that government officials have teams of staffers assisting them with the complicated minutiae of the deals. But more importantly, she says the voters who re-elected her last November knew she supported the projects, so there’s no point to an expensive referendum.
Even if Brummer’s motion dies a quick and quiet death, that doesn’t mean the projects will be approved or disapproved on July 26. The county, no doubt much to the chagrin of city officials, has agreed to hear a proposal from developer Marc Watson to build an arena near the Orange County Convention Center, which would save taxpayers money.
To Stewart, that means the commission should delay the vote to digest the new information, then hold a second hearing. Segal agrees. On July 7, he wrote county Mayor Rich Crotty a letter saying that perhaps the county should hold a second meeting July 27. So far, no extra meeting has been scheduled. But the deeper the July 26 meeting goes into the night, as county officials expect it will, the more likely it becomes that the vote will be tabled.