Budget Revise Prioritizes Flood Prevention

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Work resumed on the 2023-24 city budget with an overhaul of the strategic capitol plan during the July 26 City Commission meeting. The General Fund of $77.1 million marks a 10% increase over the previous fiscal year, but $40.9 million in short-term projects (to be completed in five years or less) lacked $30 million in funding.

“We’re not at the budget adoption phase – we’re at the preparation phase,” said Mayor Phil Anderson in reference to the ongoing process, which lasts through September. However, the need to address priorities was evident as a 70-minute discussion resulted in a reallocation of funds for the benefit of stormwater upgrades.

Short-term solutions

Stormwater drainage has been a city-wide concern, but Hurricane Ian revealed the need for a comprehensive plan. Mayor Anderson stated that a complete flood prevention program would require $20-50 million, but targeted improvements in problem areas that include Chestnut Road, Canton Avenue, and Lee Road, can be achieved in less time and with less expense.

“Those, to me, are neighborhood impact items that would total about $2 million,” said Anderson. “It’s a drop in the bucket compared to (the funding) we’re likely to be looking for, but at least it puts the immediate needs of our neighborhoods into the context of the General Fund.”

A $5 million placeholder was also added, at the request of Vice Mayor Sheila DeCiccio, for drainage improvements in the MLK Park area.

Playhouse purchase pulled

Efforts to remedy the $30 million shortfall in the short-term projects list began with $4 million, earmarked for a bid to purchase the Winter Park Playhouse building.

Since the landlords announced their intent to sell the Playhouse property, Executive Director Heather Alexander has been working with the city to find a permanent home for the 21-year-old organization. An outright purchase of its current building was one of several proposals made by City Commission, but the price became a sticking point.

“As much as I am in favor of Winter Park Playhouse, I cannot see us contributing $4 million for a single nonprofit,” said Commissioner Marty Sullivan.

Playhouse funding could still come from the county’s Tourist Development Tax (TDT) or the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA). Alexander has also cited the Playhouse Board’s ability to raise funds for the construction of a new home with a long-term lease at another property. And Winter Park Playhouse is among six nonprofits seeking to reuse the former Winter Park Library property.

Garage plan scrapped

Mayor Anderson suggested substituting $18.5 million, intended for a future downtown parking garage, with $700,000 in funding for smart sensor technology connected to Winter Park’s Transportation Master Plan. The sensors would work in tandem with a cell phone app to keep track of open parking spaces along Park Avenue and neighboring streets.

Commissioner Todd Weaver spoke in favor of the plan, citing the added expense of land in the downtown area. He also re-floated a previous idea – that hinged on funds from the county’s now-failed transportation tax – for a shuttle service to popular locations from select parking lots.

“We need parking,” said Weaver. “We don’t necessarily need a parking garage.”

Ozarks in limbo

Another $8 million could still be up for grabs as the city’s purchase of the Bank of the Ozarks property seems improbable.

The 1.88-acre property, located at 1100 N. Orange Ave., carries a price tag of $7.5 million and would require an additional $2 million in improvements to create a public green space. Commissioners unanimously stated their unwillingness to pay the full asking price, and an offer of $6 million received no response.

“I would not want to spend $7.5 million for it, I think that exceeds what it would be worth to us,” said Commissioner Sullivan, adding that it may be unlikely that the city can reach a deal with Bank of the Ozarks. “My crystal ball is cloudy, and I think that goes across all of the interested parties.”

Millage rate retained

The 2023-24 budget draft was created using Winter Park’s current millage rate of 4.0923; a value that has been in place since 2009 (one mill is equal to $1 in taxes for every $1,000 of a property’s taxable value). As commissioners decided whether to adopt the tentative rate, two spoke in favor of raising it to 4.3423. The 0.25 mill increase would add approximately $2.1 million to the General Fund.

Commissioner Sullivan proposed the hike to avoid compromising city services in the face of inflation. “It looks like, either we’re going to have to cut some things that we really feel we need, or we’re going to have to raise the millage rate.”

Commissioner Weaver seconded, and reminded fellow commissioners that the increase could be pulled back before the final budget vote if the funds were not required. However, there was consensus among the remaining commissioners that the increase was unnecessary.

“My personal preference is to match transformational budget (needs) to a resident-supported bond issue,” said Mayor Anderson. “Then, you get direct input from the residents on their feelings.”

Vice Mayor DeCiccio added that increased tax revenue from the robust housing market would create additional funding over the next two years. Commissioner Kris Cruzada expressed concern over the burden of increased property taxes on families already dealing with inflation.

The tentative rate increase was defeated by a three-two vote. Commission then voted unanimously to adopt the current tentative rate of 4.0923, along with a rate of 0.2379 mills for servicing the debt on the library bond. The number marked a .62% decrease from last year’s debt service rate.

Commissioners will continue budget discussions until their September 27 meeting when votes are cast on the final budget draft. The entire City of Winter Park 2023-24 budget proposal is available here, a draft of the five and 25-year strategic capital plan is available here.

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