ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — Mayor Jerry Demings looked at the several dozen people gathered before him in the Windermere High School gymnasium Monday night. Holding his arms out, he decided to ask a question in his usual calm, preacher-style voice.
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“How many of you believe that we have a problem with traffic, congestion in our county?” he asked. “Raise your hands.”
Most of the crowd put one up.
“How many are willing to pay for it?” he asked. Fewer hands — but still half the crowd.
The Windermere audience was Demings’ first test. Starting this week, and potentially through the beginning of November, he and other county leaders will have to rally voters to approve an increase on their own taxes, hoping for a major cash infusion into the county’s mass transit aspirations.
The effort really began in the mid-2010s, when the county realized its overdependence on roads and cars wasn’t sustainable and would lead to traffic nightmares as the population grew. A plan was developed then stalled as the pandemic hit.
Now, it’s go time.
Most likely, Orange County’s voters will be asked to raise the sales tax by 1% — from 6.5% to 7.5% — in November. The increase would cover the first $5,000 of every purchase made, except for food, prescriptions and other medical supplies and utilities.
The $600 million per year generated would fund an array of transportation and infrastructure-related needs. County leaders have not yet released a list of projects, but they teased doubling the Lynx system’s size to 600 buses, expanding Sunrail to nights and weekends and adding an east-west route, and eating into the billions of dollars of road, bicycle and pedestrian safety needs across the county and 11 of its municipalities.
“If we do nothing, our road system will begin to look like this,” Demings warned, turning to a map that showed more than 50% of the county’s roads above capacity in a decade or two.
Selling a tax increase to residents is never easy, especially in traditionally tax-averse states like Florida. Demings is betting on voters understanding several facts: first, Orange County’s tax rate is lower than its neighbors. Bumping it up will place the county on par with Osceola, which currently has a 7.5% tax rate. Demings said the national average for a metropolitan area was 8%.
Second, he said the sales tax is the most effective tool. It’s less restrictive than other taxes and can generate significantly more revenue than property taxes or impact fees. Unlike those methods, tourists would pay an estimated 51% of the taxes.
Third, Demings said a funded mass transit plan would attract more federal dollars from government agencies, especially those that push for workforce housing around major transit hubs like bus and rail stations.
Finally, he was betting on the frustrations of many residents who deal with long waits at bus stops, traffic snarls or frequent road closures due to bicycle and pedestrian crashes, and who are eager to see something done.
“We want to be able to tell people, it’s not going to be the same thing. It’s not going to be just more pavement,” District 1 Commissioner Nicole Wilson said, adding that she won’t back the proposal without constituent feedback first. “We want better bike lanes, we want to make sure there’s transit, like actual incentivized mass transit. We need light rail out here so badly.”
To allay fears that the cash may be funneled to other projects, officials said a Citizens Oversight Board would be created to help track spending.
Commissioners will receive a list of proposed early projects on March 22, with a vote to hold a referendum happening by April 26.
Information sessions are scheduled in every district, with the next two happening at Wekiva High School Tuesday night and the Barnett Park Recreation Center Wednesday night. Both meetings start at 6:30 p.m.
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