9 Investigates taxpayer money used for leasing office space

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ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. - Orange County taxpayers may not know it, but they help pay for millions worth of leased office space in Orlando – 20,000-square-feet, for instance, at the Fashion Square Mall.

Then there's a sprawling space in one downtown Orlando office building, and perhaps the biggest head -turner is a massive, luxury office on the top of the Suntrust skyrise.

In places one might expect to find private companies, WFTV's Kenneth Craig found a number of county offices that are leased.

There are dozens of rented properties, which combined, cost Orange County taxpayers more than $8 million a year.

"It's just a waste of money. Somebody's just not thinking," said activist Emmett O'Dell.

And because the offices are leased, taxpayers are getting slapped with a huge bill year after year with no return on the money spent.

Craig spoke to John Terwilliger, Orange County's director of administrative services, about the leases.

"Off the bat, it seems like an extraordinary amount of money to be throwing away every year," Craig said.

"Well, first of all, I wouldn't say we're throwing it away by any stretch of the imagination," said Terwilliger. "It houses hundreds of county employees, provides services to the community."

WFTV started digging into the county's leasing records months ago and it uncovered the property appraiser's $100,000 a month pad atop the Suntrust building.

That's when Craig found 120,000-square-feet of county leases tied up downtown. More than $4 million of that money is spent on offices for elected officials.

"It's inefficient," said Orange County resident Jay Menozzi. "It's government. It's bureaucracy."

Meanwhile, there are three floors sitting vacant at the Orange County courthouse, and a county-owned lot near its administration building downtown has been set aside to build a structure that could house all of these offices.

But county officials said the courthouse space is for future court functions. They add that they've done the math and their leases make more sense right now than building office space the county would own.

"If we were to build a 50,000-square-foot facility for them, it would take us 20 years to pay to break even on that construction," Terwilliger said.

But the county has already leased its space in the Suntrust building for 17 years now, and some taxpayers remain skeptical.

"It sounds like there needs to be accountability," Menozzi said.