Many of Orange County’s roads are in terrible shape or overloaded with traffic. The Lynx bus service and SunRail don’t meet the public transit needs of the county’s legions of low-income workers. And there aren’t nearly enough safe places for bicyclists and pedestrians.
None of that is really up for debate. And half the money raised through Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings’ proposed 1-cent sales tax increase would come from tourists, which doubles its appeal.
Still, Demings has to acknowledge that it won’t be easy to build support for the $600-million-a-year tax — and we’re not talking about voters. We’re talking about Demings’ fellow members of the County Commission, who will decide Tuesday whether to put the issue on the November ballot.
We believe commissioners understand the need. It’s almost impossible to deny. They know that many low-income neighborhoods and busy shopping areas see one bus an hour — if that. They can list the traffic bottlenecks and dangerous intersections in their districts. They hear their constituents’ complaints about roads in poor repair and areas where there’s no safe place to walk.
We also suspect that most commissioners would love to throw their support to a transportation plan with the potential to be truly transformative, with expanded rail service, clean-fuel buses and roads where traffic signals are timed to reduce congestion.
And it’s impossible to ignore the whole-hearted and comprehensive public-education effort by county staff and regional transit authorities who turned out in force, prepared to answer tough questions at community meetings over the spring.
This vote should be an easy yes. Yet one commissioner told the Sentinel’s Stephen Hudak she plans to vote no. A second said in a public meeting she is “not on board.” One more has said she’s leaning in that direction.
Demings needs four votes out of seven to get this on the ballot. He won’t get there if he doesn’t confront the single largest barrier his fellow commissioners see:
Voters need to believe the money will be spent the way county officials say it will be. They want to be assured that their tax dollars won’t be used to facilitate urban sprawl, and that money intended to cover expanded mass-transit options won’t be diverted to the transportation needs of wealthy corporations.
Commissioners want to be able to face their constituents and say that promises will be kept. Right now, some clearly don’t feel they can.
It would be easier to provide those assurances if county leaders could write tight spending guidelines into the charter amendment language itself. Unfortunately, Florida case law restricts the kinds of spending promises that can be put on the ballot. The ballot language before commissioners on Tuesday includes a citizen oversight committee, as well as monitoring from the county’s elected comptroller. But only the County Commission itself can allocate each year’s funding.
What can the commission do to bolster confidence that the money will be spent as proposed? It can make sure the watchdogs’ teeth are as sharp as possible. The comptroller and citizens’ oversight committee — along with residents — should have standing to object if future county commissioners don’t honor the covenants presented to voters this year. That includes the way funding is supposed to be split, with 45 percent allocated to road projects, 45 percent to public transit and 10 percent for cities’ priorities.
The ordinance that accompanies the ballot proposal adds a technical committee with representatives from county and city governments, SunRail, Lynx and other transportation organizations. The work of that committee should be completely transparent, with ways for residents to suggest future projects and keep an eye on those under consideration.
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County officials should look for ways to prevent construction of so-called “roads to nowhere” that are built primarily to open rural land for development. One way to do that: Strengthen the protections that prevent urban sprawl from happening in the first place, including an expansion of the land protected behind rural boundaries. That won’t happen Tuesday — but commissioners could commit to taking action before November.
Our last suggestion: Demings and other Orange County officials should speak frankly about recent decisions that will be on voters’ minds as they go to the polls — such as the 2019 gift of $125 million worth of road expansion that benefited Universal Studios theme parks.
An even bigger decision came last week. In 2020, Orange County voters mandated protection for the preserve known as Split Oak Forest, which local transportation authorities want to spear with a segment of the Osceola Parkway. Orange County officials had a good chance to stop the plan last week, when it was up for approval before a key state board. But the county didn’t withdraw its support for the proposal — a direct defiance of voters’ wishes. When asked about the project by another commissioner, Demings didn’t personally respond.
Those are the kinds of actions that strain voters’ trust. They can’t be ignored. If Demings wants his fellow commissioners’ support, he’ll address this apparent breach of faith frankly, and admit that voters have a right to feel let down. He’ll ask his fellow commissioners to suggest ways to reassure voters that the promises behind the transportation tax will be kept.
And he’ll acknowledge that this is a tough decision for everyone on the dais. The economy is tight, and low-income families are suffering. This sales tax will hit every household in Orange County. It’s possible to believe that this is a good idea, at the wrong time.
But if voters will trust the county to keep its word, they will be more willing to sacrifice for the long-term health of this community. And commissioners will likely be more willing to ask them for that trust.
The Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board consists of Opinion Editor Krys Fluker, Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson, Viewpoints Editor Jay Reddick and El Sentinel Editor Jennifer A. Marcial Ocasio. Contact us at [email protected]