Commission mulls asking voters to approve more debt to pay for flood prevention

Winter Park Playhouse, Bank of the Ozarks purchase remain in limbo while the City Commission works to balance $200 million budget

By Beth Kassab

As they attempted to balance the city’s budget, Winter Park City Commissioners on Wednesday floated the idea of asking voters to agree to take on more debt for three new programs — flood prevention, upgraded public safety buildings and the acquisition of more park land. The city’s more than $200 million budget has a shortfall of at least $30 million for projects desired by the commission.

The first of the bond referendums, which will ask voters to approve borrowing money for specific purposes, could show up on the ballot as early as March 2024, though a specific timeline is still unclear.

Mayor Phil Anderson indicated a top priority is repairing and enhancing the city’s stormwater management system, which was overtaxed with severe flooding in the wake of Hurricane Ian.

“Our residents want to have a really good flood prevention system,” said Anderson. “We’ll probably have to come forward with a capital bond issue for $20 million worth of stormwater improvements.”

But the city is still awaiting consulting reports about what kind of work needs to be done and how much it will cost — a process that is likely to extend into next year.

Vice Mayor Sheila DeCiccio expressed frustration that commissioners are being asked to assign dollar figures to projects without yet knowing the true costs.

“It’s hard for me to work on the budget without having an engineering report on stormwater,” she said. “I don’t have a clue what figure to plug in … I’m frustrated because I don’t know where to go from here.”

Anderson suggested the city begin by prioritizing $2 million for work in various neighborhoods that city staff already know is critical.

DeCiccio noted that up to $14 million is set aside in the city’s Community Redevelopment Area fund to buy the Post Office — a purchase the city has sought for years in order to expand Central Park, but without success because the U.S. Postal Service is not interested in selling. With the CRA set to dissolve in four years if Orange County does not approve an extension, that money could be used to fix flooding problems on the west side of the city or other priorities, several commissioners agreed.

Commissioners will devote a public meeting in August to specifically hash out the CRA budget.

For now, they remained non-committal on other items such as setting aside money to help the nonprofit Winter Park Playhouse find a new home or the acquisition of the Bank of the Ozarks property on Orange Avenue to expand Seven Oaks Park.

Commissioners left the dollar figure next to the Playhouse line item blank in hopes that $4 million or more from Orange County’s Tourist Development Tax would come through, though staff noted it could be well into 2024 before the county approves grants of that size for local arts and culture groups. The local theater is set to lose its current lease on Orange Avenue next year.

The board also discussed whether to purchase the vacant land owned by the Bank of the Ozarks to augment the new Seven Oaks Park and some expressed support for a special bond referendum to raise money to help the city acquire more park space.

No decision was made and it’s still not clear whether a purchase of the Ozarks land is possible or if the owner, who refused the city’s first offer, wants to sell.

“My crystal ball is cloudy,” said Commissioner Marty Sullivan, who has tried to orchestrate a deal on the property in recent weeks.

The other large unfunded project on the city’s wishlist of capital projects also remained up in the air: a new $18.5 million downtown parking garage.

Anderson suggested transportation fixes, specifically $700,000 in technology enhancements, could negate the need for more parking and a new garage. He said commissioners will know more about that after the Transportation Master Plan is discussed.

Commissioners also expressed interest in acquiring property on S.R. 436 near the 7th hole of the Winter Park Pines Golf Course, which the city bought last year, to provide space for a restaurant along the lines of The Taproom at Dubsdread. The popular eatery at the city of Orlando’s Dubsdread Golf Course in College Park appears to be the inspiration for how Winter Park envisions developing the golf course and adding another revenue stream to the mix.

“For it to be first class like the Winter Park 9, then it’s going to need that property,” said Commissioner Todd Weaver, who zoomed into the meeting from a sailing trip.

The owner is asking about $2.6 million for the property.

“This could make a lot of money,” DeCiccio said. “Could we get a business case on this?”

City Manager Randy Knight said staff will bring back more details for review.

When it came time to set the city’s property tax millage rate, Sullivan and Weaver made a brief attempt to raise the millage by a quarter mill or about $75 a year for the owner of a house with a taxable value of about $300,000.

“We’ve been diving into how much money we’re going to need and it looks like either we are going to have to cut some things we really feel we need or we’re going to have to raise the millage rate,” Sullivan said, adding the move would allow the commission flexibility between now and when the final budget is adopted in September.

But Anderson, DeCiccio and Commissioner Kris Cruzada said the millage rate should stay the same, particularly after Knight reminded the group that it recently approved higher fees for residents for everything from park services to stormwater to garbage collection.

“We raised our user fees,” Cruzada said. “I don’t know if we want to go double-barrel and also raise the millage … The Fed raised interest rates another quarter point today. If we move forward to bond, it’s going to be a higher interest rate. It’s a reflection of the time we are living in and residents and homeowners are feeling it. I just want to be sensitive to that.”

DeCiccio and Anderson noted that strong property values along with new construction to be added to the tax rolls will continue to boost city revenues while keeping the millage rate the same — at least for the time being.

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    By: Beth Kassab

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