Orlando Archives - Page 5 of 37 - Florida Politics

Florida’s unemployment rate holds steady at 5%

Florida’s unemployment rate held steady at 5 percent in February.

This marks the second month in a row the state’s unemployment rate has been at 5 percent, and mirrors the unemployment rate the state experienced in the first two months of 2016, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

The state added 239,800 jobs private sector jobs year-over-year in February. According to the DEO, the professional and business services industry added the most jobs — 43,000, or 3.4 percent increase — during the one-year period.

“I am proud to announce that Florida’s private-sector businesses have created nearly 54,000 new jobs in 2017,” said Gov. Rick Scott in a statement Friday. “Over the past six years, we have been relentless in our efforts to make Florida the most business-friendly state in the nation because a job is the most important thing to a family.”

The agency reported trade, transportation, and utilities added 42,000 jobs, or a 2.5 percent increase; education and health services added 40,500 jobs, or a 3.3 percent increase; and the leisure and hospitality industry added 40,300 jobs, or a 3.5 percent increase, during the same one- year period.

The Orlando region continued to lead the state in year-over-year job gains, adding 50,900 jobs between February 2016 and February 2017. The Tampa Bay region added 36,100 jobs during the one-year period, followed by Jacksonville with 25,900 jobs.

Mickey vs. the tax man: Disney, Universal fight tax bills

It takes a lot of land to accommodate Cinderella’s castle, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Epcot’s 11-country World Showcase — and a hefty purse to pay the property taxes on it.

To cut tax bills in the tens of millions of dollars, the specialists at Orlando’s famous theme parks have employed methods from the creative — placing cows on undeveloped land and claiming an agricultural exemption — to the traditional — negotiating or appealing to a county board.

Over the past couple of years, however, such tactics aren’t quite doing the job: Property assessments and taxes have jumped — and so has the number of lawsuits the theme parks and other businesses have filed against Orange County’s property appraiser. That’s Rick Singh, who was re-elected to a second four-year term last fall despite the thousands of dollars in donations park officials gave his opponent.

Park guests relax and cool off with a water mist under the globe at Universal Studios City Walk in Orlando, Fla.

In lawsuits filed last year, the theme parks said Singh’s office had failed to use proper appraisal methodology. Walt Disney Parks and Resorts issued a statement describing increased assessments on some of its properties for 2015 as “unreasonable and unjustified.”

Beyond such terse statements, officials from Disney, the development arm of Universal Orlando and SeaWorld of Florida are saying very little about an issue they hope to resolve in court.

But they have spoken loudly with their wallets. Groups affiliated with all three companies gave $19,000 to Singh’s Republican opponent. Singh, a Democrat, got only $5,000 from the groups.

“If the single mother who is working two jobs has to be held accountable to pay her fair share, so should everybody else.” — Rick Singh, Orange County property appraiser

The backlash isn’t surprising, said Doug Head, chairman of the watchdog group Orange County Watch. Head said the appraiser’s position has traditionally been a cushy post for local politicos waiting to retire, but Singh is one of the first to have substantial professional training.

“He uses professional expertise, and he clearly figured out there is a lot more value than is properly being reflected,” Head said. “He did what he needed to do, and people accustomed to the way business was done weren’t happy.”

Singh said his methods for assessing properties are no different than those of his predecessors — except when looking at resorts and hotels. Then, he considers their income statements and the local “bed tax” paid by hotel customers, which he said his predecessor didn’t use. Income isn’t considered when assessing theme parks.

“It’s a matter of being fair and equitable,” Singh said. “If the single mother who is working two jobs has to be held accountable to pay her fair share, so should everybody else.”

The importance of the three theme parks to Orange County, which includes Orlando, can’t be overstated: The properties owned by Disney, Universal and SeaWorld are valued collectively at about $10.7 billion. Properties owned by the largest resort and timeshare companies are worth another $6.3 billion.

The three theme park companies pay 7 percent of the county’s property taxes — more than $135 million last year. That revenue helps to mitigate the impact of hosting 66 million visitors in 86,000 hotel rooms and 15,500 timeshare units every year, and to finance law enforcement, schools, parks and public health programs. Disney also pays property taxes to a private government established by the Florida Legislature that provides the Disney parks and resorts with services including utilities, roadways and firefighters.

Orange County Property Appraiser Rick Singh, left, at an election party in Orlando, Fla.

Property values for the theme parks, resorts and other large commercial properties are set by a team of almost two dozen of the county’s seasoned appraisers in what Singh calls “the most complex tax roll in the world” due to the constant growth.

Singh said the appraisers use a “cost approach” when evaluating theme parks. Tax bills go up not just from rising property values but also from new construction, which is constant at the parks.

“What does it cost to improve the land? What does it cost to build this? … What is the labor cost? Factor in all that and then it depreciates, and that’s your cost approach,” he said.

But the results are meeting a wall of resistance. Last year, Disney, Universal and SeaWorld filed a dozen lawsuits against Singh’s office, the tax collector and the state Department of Revenue. Several other Orlando resorts also have sued.

The companies pay taxes only on their properties’ “assessed” values; the “market” values reflect what the properties could be sold for.

SeaWorld is fighting the market and assessed values of its flagship SeaWorld Adventure Park, its Aquatica water park and Discovery Cove, an animal-encounter park. In a separate lawsuit the property appraiser’s office filed against SeaWorld in 2015, Singh’s office listed a market value of $192.5 million; SeaWorld listed it at $143.4 million.

Universal is disputing the market value of its 20,000-vehicle parking garage, which has nearly doubled in two years, from $148.6 million in 2014, to $297 million in 2016. The garage’s assessed value only went up 10 percent a year during that time, however, from $145 million to $175 million.

The entrance to Sea World, in Orlando, Fla.

Disney, whose total properties in Orange County have a market value of $8.2 billion, is not saying publicly what it thinks the value should be. But the company’s tax bill from Singh’s office jumped from $84.5 million in 2014 to $97.2 million in 2015 to $102.6 million in 2016, an average increase of about 10 percent a year. Those numbers exclude what Disney pays its private government in property taxes.

“Similar to other property owners in Orange County, we have no choice but to take action to dispute these errors by the property appraiser,” Disney’s statement said.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

If Aramis Ayala had been in Denver, people might have shrugged

In January, when she took office, new Denver District Attorney Beth McCann reaffirmed her campaign promise on an extraordinary policy: There would be no death penalty cases in her district under her watch.

The reaction?

Virtually nothing. No expressions of shock or outrage from other politicians, no calls for cases to be stripped from her, no calls for her firing, suspension or resignation.

“I think our community is a lot different from Orlando,” McCann said in an interview with FloridaPolitics.

Indeed, Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala became something of a political pariah a week ago when she made a similar pronouncement for her Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit, with most Republicans and a few Democrats blasting her and many calling for her ouster. And while Ayala is getting some support for Democrats for her right to decide how to prosecute her cases, she’s not finding much political support explicitly for her no-death penalty position.

Nationally, the latest annual tracking poll by Gallup, in late 2016, found that 60 percent of Americans support the death penalty and 37 percent oppose. That’s the closet gap since Richard Nixon‘s first term as president, but still a solid majority in support. A Pew tracking poll shows identical trend lines, though a much tighter gap in 2016 – 49 percent in favor and 42 percent opposed. But again, death penalty wins.

Yet region by region, state by state, sometimes even district by district, there may be no across-the-board pattern, and nothing to suggest that the blowback Ayala is getting in Florida and Central Florida is at all common.

The last two district attorneys in San Francisco have disavowed and not used the death penalty. That’s a liberal political bastion; but now two district attorneys in Birmingham, Ala., have won election and entered office after personally disavowing the death penalty, though neither has ruled it out entirely for extraordinary cases.

One key difference between Ayala and McCann – both Democrats – is that McCann campaigned on a no death penalty promise. But it wasn’t that hard for her to do. Two of three candidates took that position. There hasn’t been an execution in Colorado in 12 years, and statewide there are only three people on death row. Her predecessor in Denver tried just one death penalty case in five years, and lost on the capital punishment counts.

Even Aurora, Colo., movie theater mass murderer James Holmes – tried in the neighboring Arapahoe County – was given life in prison without parole, after being convicted of murdering 12 people and attempting to murder 70 others.

McCann watched with interest everything Ayala said, and everything that has happened since. She found herself agreeing with all of Ayala’s reasonings, and “very troubled” by the political reactions, particularly when Gov. Rick Scott reassigned the case of alleged cop-killer Markeith Loyd to another state attorney. But McCann also conceded it’s all outside her experience, and cautioned that Ayala will have to reconcile with local opinion.

“I think it’s the climate in our state. In Denver, politically, the death penalty is not very popular,” McCann said. “So it’s a very different situation.”

So how is it in Florida? Polling is all over the place. Polls by the Palm Beach Post and by Public Policy Polling both found majorities preferring life imprisonment without parole – Ayala’s position. But polls that have asked if people support the death penalty have shown majorities saying yes.

That leads Robert J. Smith, director of the Fair Punishment Project, a death penalty opposition group based at Harvard University, to argue that people do not support the death penalty as much as politicians – in any political party – think that people do.

The biggest indicator, Smith argues, is that the actual use of the death penalty has plummeted in the past two decades, nationally and in Florida, both in terms of sentences and executions. At least in practice, prosecutors, judges, and most importantly, juries, are just not that into it anymore, he suggested.

“In the 1990s, there were 315 death sentences in 1994 and 1996. Last year in America there were 30,” Smith said. “So you have a nation of 320 million people, there were 15,000 homicides, and you had 30 death sentences in the last year.”

Texas, once one of the execution leaders of the world, with upwards of 40 death sentences a year, saw just three death sentences handed down last year, Smith said. Neither Dallas nor Houston (Harris County) have had one in more than two years, he added.

In Ayala’s circuit, under her predecessors Jeff Ashton and Lawson Lamar, there was one death sentence in Orange County and none in Osceola County in the five-year period between 2012 and 2016, Smith said.

“I think you’re going to see that politics is going to change… going to catch up to that,” he said.

Federal grant to provide $8.5 million to help Pulse victims

The U.S. Department of Justice is awarding an $8.5 million grant to help the victims of last June’s massacre at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub.

The grant, to be awarded Tuesday by the Department of Justice to the Florida Office of Attorney General Pam Bondi, was announced Monday by the office of U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida.

Florida will get $8,466,970 to assist survivors and victims’ families of the mass shooting, which left 49 dead and 53 wounded, as well as to help witnesses, and first responders. The Antiterrorism Emergency Assistance Program grant, administered through the DoJ’s Office for Victims of Crime, will aim to ensure that victims, witnesses and first responders receive necessary services to help them adjust in the aftermath, begin the healing process and cope with re-traumatization, according to an advisory from the department.

The money also will be used to reimburse authorities for the family assistance center that Orlando, Orange County, Heart of Florida United Way, Florida and the non-profit foundation Orlando United established in the days after the massacre.

The Orlando United Assistance Center was initially opened at the Camping World Stadium in the days immediately following the tragedy, but was moved to a building at 507 Michigan Street later on, where it has remained, with funding set for 2017. There, patients have access to mental health care and other needs, such as referrals for housing and rental assistance, emergency financial assistance, employment, training and educational opportunities.

Protests at Marco Rubio’s office say focus is on access, not booting him

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio lost leases on his offices in Tampa and Jacksonville in part because of landlord’s impatience with the incessant barrage of protests out front.

Is Orlando next?

The plaza in front of the downtown Orlando office building housing Rubio’s Central Florida office was the site of another protest Tuesday, as it has been almost every Tuesday this year.

This time, it was For Our Future and other groups pressing a combination of state, local and federal liberal causes as part of the statewide Awake The State rallies.

The building itself was occupied by protesters for most of a day and night last July when more than a hundred people staged a sit-in, demanding that Rubio consider gun restrictions in response to the horrific massacre at the Pulse nightclub just a couple miles away. Ten protesters were arrested for refusing to leave that night.

On Monday to the Florida Times-Union (and again Tuesday morning for FloridaPolitics.com), a Rubio spokeswoman in Jacksonville charged that the leases were yanked not because protesters were explicitly targeting the Republican senator but because they were targeting President Donald Trump,  using Rubio’s offices as a platform.

“For the second time in another major region of the state, the unruly behavior of some anti-Trump protesters is making it more inconvenient for Floridians to come to our local office to seek assistance with federal issues,” Christine Mandreucci asserted in a statement she had earlier provided to the Times-Union.

Orlando’s protesters aren’t entirely disputing that Rubio is not the primary target of their ire, but said as long as the senator refuses to respond to them they would assume he is doing nothing to address their concerns. Tuesday’s protest, for example, largely focused on state lawmakers and Trump, though most speakers called on Rubio to get involved in issues ranging from health care to Muslim bans, and from abortion to Israel.

“We would like to remind people like Marco Rubio who said that he would be a check on Donald Trump. He refuses to met with people, he refuses to have a town hall, he refuses to talk to us, so we’re holding it here,” said Mitch Emerson of For Our Future.

And they said they have no interest in causing the senator any problems with his landlord — Seaside Office Plaza is managed by Highwoods Properties.

“Truthfully, the one goal that I have, and the one goal that we have in general, is we would like our voices to be heard,” said Melanie Gold, a primary organizer of the Tuesday rallies.

 

Rick Scott criticized for not mentioning LGBT community in State of State

Advocates blasted Gov. Rick Scott for failing to mention the LGBT community in his State of the State address, despite dedicating a significant portion of his comments on the June shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

“We heard about the horror that our state has experienced; we heard about the heroism from first responders and ordinary Floridians, and we heard about the pain of the families who lost loved ones,” said Hannah Willard, the public policy director for Equality Florida, during a news conference after Scott’s State of the State address.

“What we didn’t hear was any mention of the LGBT community. We didn’t hear … that the attack was a direct attack on LGBTQ Floridians in a nightclub in Orlando,” she continued. “Thoughts and prayers are not enough; we demand action. The LGBT community deserves action from our elected officials.”

Forty-nine people were killed, and dozens of others wounded, in a June shooting at an Orlando nightclub. The attack was the deadlines mass shooting the U.S. since Virginia Tech in 2007.

Scott spent days on end in the Orlando area, meeting with families and first responders. And the incident was featured heavily in his State of the State address.

“The days I spent in Orlando following the shooting will always be with me. I talked to many parents who lost their children,” he said in prepared remarks. “The hardest thing I have ever had to do as Governor is try to find the words to console a parent who lost their child, and I truly cannot imagine the grief of losing a child.”

Prepared remarks show the governor made no direct mention of the LGBT community in his speech.

“He called it a terrorist attack,” said Sen. Gary Farmer. “He had the audacity to not once mention the LGBT community that was so torn apart and was the target of a madman.”

Willard called on the Legislature to take action this year to pass the Florida Competitive Workforce Act, saying the law was needed “more than ever before.”

“This piece of legislation has been introduced for almost a decade … and it does something very simple. It would add LGBT people to existing protections into our state, to make sure that no one faces discrimination in employment, in housing or in public spaces,” she said. “Every single Floridians deserved to be treated fairly under the law, no matter who they are and who they love.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report, reprinted with permission.

Linda Stewart, Amy Mercado introduce bills to protect bears, their food and habitat

As state Rep. Amy Mercado declares, Florida’s now-annual black bear hunt has become a “slaughter.”

Mercado and fellow Orlando Democratic state Sen. Linda Stewart laid out bills Wednesday to ban the hunts for 10 years, as well as steps to keep bears happy enough in the forests and stop raiding neighborhoods.

“The bears, we’ve encroached on their homes,” Mercado said. “They were here first. And a slaughter of the bears is unacceptable.”

Mercado’s House Bill 491 and Stewart’s Senate Bill 1304 would call for the state to stop the harvest of the bears’ primary food before they go into winter denning season, saw palmetto berries, on state lands. They also seek to redirect controlled burns so that they do not affect bears’ habitats at the wrong times of the year and channel some money from the state’s Non-Game Wildlife Fund into grants to purchase bear-resistant trash cans for neighborhoods near bear habitats, such as the Wekiva Springs neighborhoods of Orlando plagued by numerous wandering bears in recent years.

It also would have state officials run more bear census studies.

The bills, entitled “The Florida Black Bear Habitat Restoration Act,” would also place a 10-year ban on bear hunting, which was resumed three years ago due to the assumption that Florida’s bear population had grown so much that it was forcing bears into the suburbs.

“What has been happening is that people have been going out into the forests, our public lands, and they have been harvesting the palmetto berries. And that is one of the primary foods of the black bear. So when you see the bears coming into your neighborhood and swimming in your swimming pool, they are looking for a food source,” Stewart said. “If we can just keep them where they are supposed to have their habitat by not infringing on their habitat, then that is what we should attempt to do.”

Similar bills including one by then-state Sen. Darren Soto of Orlando were introduced last year but died.

Stewart and Chuck O’Neal, co-chair of The League of Women Voters Florida environmental committee, said he and Stewart’s staff have worked with state officials to try to alleviate some of their concerns, and have made five significant changes from Soto’s bill.

O’Neal said the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has agreed to some parts of the bill, including the funding. Of other disagreements from last year, he said “the sharp edges have been shaved off,” though that does not necessarily mean the Commission now supports them.

“There was no buy-in by the FWC last year. This year Sen. Stewart’s staff has worked with the FWC,” O’Neal said. “So with their buy-in this year we hope it passes.”

O’Neal claimed that 90 percent of Floridians want to protect black bears, and the issue is garnering worldwide attention.

“So the eyes of the world are on Florida,” he said. “Are we going to do the right thing?”

“We want to see this bill scheduled. We want to see it heard. And we want the people of this state to have the opportunity to come to the stand and testify before the Legislature that they want this bill passed.”

Brightline, Indian River County duke it out before House panel

Brightline railroad supporters and Treasure Coast counties opposing the higher-speed train planned from Orlando to Miami debated their cases Wednesday before a Florida House committee, showing the high stakes of their fight.

Officials from the train company, and two other train companies, were joined by officials of one of the counties, Indian River for a panel discussion before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee, pitting the local’s concerns for safety versus the companies assurances that safety already is addressed.

“This is going to be a tremendous benefit to the entire state of Florida,” Brightline General Counsel Myles Tobin declared.

“It is a railroad, and the cost of doing business is to make it safe,” declared Kate Cotner, assistant county attorney for Indian River County.

At stake is Brightline’s ability to upgrade a rail line and operate privately-run passenger trains from West Palm Beach to Orlando, which will traverse four counties at speeds up to 110 mph without actually stopping in any of them. Two of those counties, Indian River and Martin, are suing, and pushing the Florida Legislature for safety measures beyond what Brightline has deemed necessary.

That fight is a large reason why Brightline has thrown out its timetable for completing the construction and beginning the service. At one time the company anticipated being able to do so late this year. None of the construction has started, and now the service indefinitely delayed.

Also complicating matters are bills pushed by Treasure Coast lawmakers that would require some additional safety measures – universal four-arm crossing gates at all road crossings, strategic fencing, and other items.

The committee was not explicitly hearing House Bill 269, introduced by Republican state Reps. Erin Grall of Vero Beach and MaryLynn Magar of Tequesta. But that bill and its Senate counterpart, Senate Bill 386 from Republican state Sen. Debbie Mayfield of Melbourne were often cited by railroad officials as a concern, and by the opponents as important, and both Grall and Magar took part in the discussions.

Cotner said the bill would require four-gate crossings, and fencing where the Florida Department of Transportation deemed it necessary, and that the department was on board with the bill.

Tobin pointed out that all crossing guard devices would adhere to federal railroad standards, and that Brightline was going way beyond by including such technologies as positive train control, a high-tech, computerized-sensor system not yet in use on any other American railroad. As for the fencing, he said studies show it’s a waste of money, that it does not stop trespassers from entering rails or getting hit by trains.

He also predicted the bills, if approved, would be preempted by federal law.

Brightline intends to open up the southern phase of its service, linking West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami on 27 miles or track later this year. But those trains would run no faster than 79 mph. The 129-mile phase between West Palm and Cocoa would allow for 110 mph trains, and the 38 miles Cocoa to Orlando International Airport the trains would allow trains to run as fast as 125 mph.

“We are going to provide a unique service in the United States, in the sense that it is a privately-funded, privately-operated passenger service,” Tobin said.

There are no stops planned for the counties of Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River and Brevard. The Indian River contingent participating in the discussion noted that their counties will be facing unique, new risks affecting traffic and emergency first responders, without getting any service.

“Because you’re going to be running trains at 110 mph, this is a risk that doesn’t exist now, and this is something everyone needs to be concerned about,” said George Gavalla, a railroad safety consultant hired by Indian River.

 

‘Arnold Palmer Expressway’ designation gets committee nod

Driving like Arnold Palmer may soon take on a new meaning in Orlando.

The Senate Transportation Committee approved a bill Tuesday to rename about four miles of State Road 408 as the “Arnold Palmer Expressway,” honoring the legendary golfer and longtime Orlando snowbird resident who died last September.

“As you know Arnold Palmer was not only a larger-than-life figure in golf, he was an incredibly beloved and incredibly charitable member of the Central Florida community,” said state Sen. David Simmons, the Longwood Republican who sponsored Senate Bill 480.

“And as you know, the Arnold Palmer Invitational is March 13-19, 2017, and in preparation for that, this bill is one we’re hoping, since it only has one committee of reference, will recognize the awesome, awesome work and the individual that Arnold Palmer was,” Simmons added. “I’m hoping you can support 480 so that it can be passed the first week of session and be part of Central Florida before the invitational.”

There was no hesitation. With two potential speakers waiving, the entire matter took less than three minutes before the committee voted unanimously to report the bill favorably to the full senate.

The bill, however, technically would not take effect until July 1, as currently written. It would name the stretch of SR 408 from Kirkman Road to Clarke Road after the golfing great, who lived just south of that stretch in the Dr. Phillips area of Orlando. That highway already is designated by the Central Florida Expressway Authority as the East-West Expressway.

Orange County moving forward on I-Drive pedicab regulation

With a rapid increase of pedicabs that apparently now include many that are currently unregulated, Orange County officials laid out a proposed ordinance Tuesday to require permits, insurance, inspections, and enforcement along International Drive.

The ordinance is largely supported by a handful of pedicab companies that already are operating under a separate set of rules and permits that give them authorization to serve the Orange County Convention Center. It’s also being pushed by International Drive businesses and the convention center.

Any pedicab operating outside of the convention center property is not regulated, and both county officials and a couple of pedicab company owners, notably John Forgione of 5 Star Pedicab, contended that slipshod competitors show up with unsafe cabs and unsafe driving and charge unfair fares, especially whenever there’s a big convention in town.

However, disagreements are arising as county officials try to deal with both economics and technologies affecting the scores of bicycle taxis operating in the county’s convention and tourism district.

Among them are questions of whether the county should cap the number of permits, much as taxi companies are limited by the number of cab medallions available, whether small electric motors – dubbed “driver assist devices” – would be banned, how fares might be defined if drivers work largely on tips, and how much leeway county and law enforcement officials might have to close streets to pedicabs either temporarily or permanently.

“International Drive is the street we’re on. So if we’re not allowed on International Drive for any period of time, it would put us out of business,” said Catherine Ojeda, owner of Redi Pedi Cab Company, which runs up to 20 pedicabs in the area.

The proposal, as outlined Tuesday before the Orange County Board of Commissioners by County Transportation Supervisor Krista Barber, would pedicab companies and drivers to get county permits to operate anywhere in the International Drive Improvement District, which stretches from just north of Sand Lake Road to SeaWorld, and includes the convention center and numerous hotels and attractions. They would need liability insurance and meet equipment and safety requirements.

The county is proposing reducing the minimum age of drivers from 21 to 18, to allow for more college student-aged drivers. They must undergo background checks and adhere to codes of conduct and dress. The sheriff’s office and the county program administrator would enforce rules and could levy fines, impound vehicles, revoke permits, and make arrests.

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