Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings heard a wide spectrum of opinions Monday night, leading an open-house forum in his campaign to persuade voters to back his proposed penny-per-dollar increase in the county sales tax to fix clogged roads and build a “world-class” transit system.

Some residents came to cheer him on, others to tell him no and many to listen.

Count Sofia Ortiz, 35, a union worker in housekeeping at Disney, as a listener for now.

“I don’t know yet,” she said when asked if she supports the tax increase. “I’m still learning.”

Ortiz, a resident of Lake Buena Vista, lives close to her job, but knows colleagues who face a daily hour-long, one-way commute to work.

“It’s crazy,” she said.

Demings hopes the tax, if adopted, helps to end long, frustrating, sometimes dangerous travel by improving roads, providing more transportation options or spurring construction of affordable workforce housing closer to transit hubs, all of which require an infusion of public money.

He addressed a crowd of more than 70 people to start the 90-minute presentation.

The mayor began the forum — the first of six open houses he will use to explain why he believes the tax hike is needed — by asking those seated in the Windermere High School gymnasium to signify by a show of hands if they believed the county has a traffic congestion problem.

Nearly every hand in the crowd shot up.

Then he asked how many wanted community leaders to do something about it.

Most hands stayed up.

Then Demings asked what he called the toughest question — “How many of you are willing to pay for it?”

Many hands fell.

Selenia Roldan, a retired paralegal residing in Winter Garden, dropped hers.

“It’s not a great time to raise taxes,” she said afterward. “We should have planned for this before the growth. We’re working backwards.”

In 2019 and pre-pandemic 2020, Demings appeared at 200 community meetings to stump for his proposal to raise the 6.5% sales tax in Orange County — one of the region’s lowest — to 7.5%, tied for the highest. The mayor shut down the campaign in April 2020 because of COVID-19.

Attendees visited 15 information kiosks and posed questions about road improvements, bicycle and pedestrian safety, adding bus or commuter rail stops, quizzing Joe Kunkel, director of Orange County Public Works; Lendy Castillo, customer service manager for Lynx; and Kristalyn Stewart, public outreach manager for SunRail.

A team from the city of Winter Garden staffed a booth to show the dozens of transportation projects tax proceeds could help pay for.

According to county estimates, the tax increase would generate about $596 million a year or $17.9 billion over 30 years.

Orange County’s 11 largest municipalities will share 10% of the revenue, or about $59.5 million a year, divided according to population.

Jeff Benavides, the county’s chief sustainability and resilience officer, provided answers at an information booth about building more charging stations for electric vehicles and converting Lynx’s fleet of public buses from diesel fuel to electric power, a conversion now underway.

Commissioner Nicole Wilson, whose west Orange district includes Disney, fast-growing Horizon West and Winter Garden, promised to hold her own “listening” tours to hear from constituents. Commissioners will decide April 26 whether to put the tax on the November election ballot.

Winter Garden City Commission voted unanimously Thursday to endorse Demings’ proposed tax in a resolution which stated, “… current transportation deficiencies within the city and across Orange County cannot be met through current funding sources.” Ocoee’s board will consider a similar resolution Tuesday.

Angel de la Portilla, a resident for 30 years, said he supports the tax because it would provide long-term transportation funding.

“Orange County’s seen a huge demand for new homes and new apartments and a lot of the growth is driven by new residents coming into the area,” said de la Portilla, a business owner. “This is needed because our current infrastructure funding cannot keep up with the pace of growth.”

Another open house is scheduled Tuesday in the Wekiva High School cafeteria, 2501 Hiawassee Road.

Others are set for Wednesday in the Barnett Park Recreation Center, 4801 W. Colonial Drive; March 7, at the Goldenrod Recreation Center, 4863 N. Goldenrod Road; Monday, March 14, at the South Econ Recreation Center, 3850 S. Econlockhatchee Trail; and Monday, March 21, in the Colonial High School gymnasium, 6100 Oleander Drive.

All meetings are scheduled from 6:30 to 8 p.m.

Source: Orlando Sentinel

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