After a 3-2 vote that capped off 90 minutes of debate, Winter Park City Commission will make a last-ditch effort to purchase Bank of the Ozarks’ 1.88-acre property bordering Seven Oaks Park.
The vote, held during the budget hearing at the Sept. 13 city meeting, came after the unanimous acceptance of the current millage rate of 4.0923, which has gone unchanged for 15 years. Commissioners were then presented with changes to the 2024 CRA and General Fund budgets that resulted from meetings held since the first drafts were presented on July 12. The changes include:
- $350,000 for programming and Sunday hours at Winter Park Library
- $1.5 million for stormwater improvements within CRA
- Defer $200,000 in capital connectivity improvements for projects under the Transportation Master Plan
- Reprioritize 3.5 million in future Capital Improvement Project funding for additional stormwater improvements
- $150,000 in matching funds for bike trail grant
- $151,000 for a Public Works construction manager position
- $113,000 for community service officer position, including vehicle and equipment, starting April 2024
- $1.8 million over two years for Aloma Avenue traffic improvements
Commissioner Marty Sullivan then motioned for an amendment to include funding, within the General Fund budget, for the city’s recent bid to purchase the Bank of the Ozarks property at 1100 N. Orange Ave.
Aside from preventing future development on the land, city ownership would create a contiguous greenspace with neighboring Seven Oaks Park and Mead Botanical Garden. The property would also allow for stormwater retention and provide easements by the nearby railroad tracks for the construction of a train station.
A $6 million bid, submitted last month by City Manager Randy Knight, also offered a refund of half the mobility fee for a new bank building that Ozarks is negotiating at Ravadauge. Knight said a soft counteroffer was made that proposed the city foot the bill for $60,000 in closing costs, raising the final bid to $6.326 million.
A total of $1 million from the city’s parks acquisition fund was proposed to help finance the bid, along with $500,000 in private donations. City Commission had not agreed on a way to fund the balance, and was waiting for word on the offer when a Sept. 11 email from Knight stated that the bank had accepted another bid that offered, “a more streamlined path to approvals and closing.” The email did not contain information on the buyer or the offer.
Sullivan admitted that the amendment may be a moot point, but remained hopeful that the bank’s announcement was not a final decision.
“At this point, I want us to assume that they have not contracted for that sale yet,” said Sullivan. “I’m cautiously optimistic that Bank of the Ozarks will look favorably at this offer if we show a commitment to purchase the property.”
Sullivan’s optimism was shared by Commissioner Todd Weaver who seconded his motion for the amendment, but requested discussion on exactly how the purchase would be funded. Other commissioners were less optimistic.
“(Bank of the Ozarks) have not dealt with us in good faith and are playing us to get other offers,” said Vice Mayor Sheila DeCiccio, who has advocated for the purchase despite frustration with negotiations. She also stated that the city has shown a resolve to purchase the property, and was against allowing Bank of the Ozarks more than two weeks to respond to any additional offers.
Commissioner Kris Cruzada called the email “a flat-out rejection” and stated his views against showing commitment to an uncertain purchase. “I’m just not about to put up money when we don’t even know where it’s going to come from.”
According to city documents, a bond to fund the remainder of the purchase would come at a rate of 4.5% over 15 years resulting in approximately $372,000 in annual debt service payments. The amount is within the 2024 General Fund contingency balance, but budgetary pressures from pension payments, healthcare costs and inflation could impact a long-term payment plan.
Regarding his views on floating a bond, Mayor Phil Anderson said, “my personal preference is to invest in public safety and in stormwater.” He also cited public opinion, expressed in emails to the city, as a reason to hold back on the bid. “I don’t see an overwhelming grassroots cry for this. In fact, I probably see the opposite.”
A suggestion by Anderson to separate the vote to approve the budget from the vote to fund the bid was, at first, rejected by Sullivan and Weaver. After further discussion, which included three public comments against the purchase and one in favor, both commissioners moved to withdrawal the amendment. A separate motion was made to support funding of the city’s bid should Bank of the Ozarks accept within a 21-day period, agreed to by DeCiccio.
The revised 2024 budget was unanimously approved while the motion to fund the property bid passed by a 3-2 vote with Cruzada and Anderson dissenting. DeCiccio seemed to show hesitancy with a long pause before casting her vote in favor of the motion.
Updated information will be presented, along with the opportunity for discussion and further amendments during the final 2024 budget hearing at the Sept. 27 commission meeting.