‘We need it’: Orange County commissioners vote to put penny tax hike on ballot

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — Three hours into his meeting, Mayor Jerry Demings looked at the clock, then the crowd gathered in front of him.

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Time for a break, he declared, encouraging people to stretch their legs for 10 minutes.

Demings and the other commissioners had sat through 42 people who shared their opinions on the main event of the night, which was the possible penny sales tax increase he had been advocating for years: $17.9 billion to be injected into the county’s transportation network over 30 years, his staff projected, which would be a signature achievement.

Though the majority of speakers backed giving voters a say in November, the night was far from over. Late into the evening, commissioners went back and forth on different parts of their proposal, fretting over transparency and the amount of money to be dedicated to roads, trains and buses.

READ: Billions in road, rail and bus improvements promised if penny sales tax passes

“It’s not about if we need it,” District 3 Commissioner Mayra Uribe said. “We need it.”

The billions would double the Lynx transportation system and expand SunRail hours, also adding a second train line to Orlando International Airport and a third to Apopka. Bike paths would be installed on roads, sidewalks and crossings would be made safer for pedestrians. More than half of the money would come from the wallets of tourists.

It’s the kind of funding the county has tried to generate for years, but it has been caught in wrangling over details again and again. The stakes are high: lots of money being channeled everywhere leaves room for decisions that will make some happier than others.

READ: “We must act now”: Mayor Demings pushes penny sales tax hike ahead of key commission vote

Commissioner Uribe fought for more than an hour to expand transparency over the projects being funded. She advocated for more access to the Citizens Oversight Board that will be set up to monitor spending. Eventually, she won each of her concessions.

A few seats down, District 5 Commissioner Emily Bonilla was not as convinced. She said the proposal wasn’t “there yet.” She wanted more time to study each of the projects being funded.

“I wish we had the last two years,” she said.

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District 1 Commissioner Nicole Wilson cast a “no” vote as well, asking, unsuccessfully, for money to be shifted away from road projects and toward mass transit.

“I wasn’t happy with the specifics that were outlined, and I feel like the public was really clear about prioritizing safety,” she said. “The plans that we saw are still very similar to what we’ve been doing for a long time.”

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Demings was more than pleased, saying voters were approving similar initiatives all around the country. He said the timing was ripe for injecting life into Orange County’s network.

“Everything that we will do, every decision that we will make regarding spending those dollars -- if this passes in November -- will be in the public forum,” he said. “Anyone that says we have been less than transparent, I think they’ve been less than honest about it.”

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