Newly-elected Winter Park commissioner pushes for tax relief for city homeowners.

Newly-elected City Commissioner Steve Leary wants to help Winter Park homeowners get a break on their property tax burden.

WINTER PARK – The city commission is starting debate on a challenging and ambitious new goal: to relieve the tax burden on residents of this Orange County city, without necessarily shifting too much of the burden onto businesses at a time when the economy is still shakey.
City Commissioner Steve Leary, who was elected last month, said he thinks Winter Park is healthy, and has its strengths – but could also do better, particularly for taxpayers.
“I think the city is moving forward,” he said. “We’re addressing some issues that need to be addressed, and one of them is we’re looking to increase our commercial base to offset the grossly upside down tax ratio, which is 25 percent commercial and 75 percent residential. We’re going to be addressing that for the first time.”
Changing that imbalance won’t be easy, Leary said – and it won’t happen quickly. But he thinks the keys to it are finding ways to attract more businesses to particular neighborhoods of city, while also standing up to critics who think any kind of pro-business economic development means sacrificing the historic nature of what Winter Park has now.
“The problem when you have 75 percent of our tax base being residential is that property values are still depressed,” Leary said. “That creates a challenge for us.”
Cutting residential property taxes would require commissioners to then turn around and cut basic services, he said. But on the other hand, raising taxes on commercial properties to shift some of the tax burden away from the residential side only puts more of a squeeze on local business owners, he added.
“It’s a challenging environment,” Leary said. “I don’t think some people understand that.”
The key, Leary said, is to diversify the economy so more businesses come to commercial strips that the city wants to improve and revitalize.
“We’re looking at areas that are currently blighted, like (U.S.) 17/92, Fairbanks Avenue, some of Aloma Avenue, and helping to better revitalize those areas, which will reduce the tax burden on our residents,” he said. “I’m not fearful of the future. I’m optimistic about the future. But we’re not going to get from a 75-25 percent residential-commercial tax base to a 70-30 percent tax base in two years.”
A more realistic plan, Leary said, is for the commission to aim at bringing the ratio down to 70-30 over the next five years, through a long term strategy that focuses on economic diversification.
“I think that’s something we can all look forward to, and something we can manage,” he said.
In the meantime, Leary said he hopes to explain to residents that business growth doesn’t mean Winter Park has to sacrifice what makes it special and appealing.
“The past couple of years have been a challenge, and I think some members of our community have done quite a job of telling people that big bad men are coming in and taking over our town,” he said. “Part of the fear is when you say you want to better diversify the tax base, people say ‘Oh, you want to put up huge buildings.’ Well, that’s not the case. We need to come up with programs as a city to encourage people to relocate major businesses here, and work with some of the landlords to encourage that commercial base to expand.
“But when you mention diversifying our base, some of them panic — the chicken littles who run around saying the sky is falling and the city commission wants to put up 30 story buildings,” Leary added. “That won’t happen. Everyone in the city loves the historic nature of Park Avenue and Winter Park in general. I hear businesses are excited about what we’re doing. They’re not being micromanaged and are being allowed to do their job.”
Leary thinks that enthusiasm will spread to city residents as well.
“I’m very enthusiatic. I’m very encouraged,” he said. “I expect some naysayers. There are always naysayers. But if there’s one thing that’s surprised me since I took office, it’s that I’m overly surprised at the enthusiasm of the people in the city. They just feel more upbeat today.”

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Spirituality and purpose — particularly God’s purpose — have a role for us, even those in prison.

Editor’s Note: Vikki Hankins spent 18 years in federal prison for a non-violent drug crime. Today she lives in Orlando, runs her own business, and is a contributor to Freeline Media Orlando. Vikki reflects here on the issue of faith and the role it plays inside prison.
ORLANDO — The other day I read an article about prisoners and the chapel that I found interesting. But there were a few statements in the article that have crossed my mind concerning imprisonment, people of color and oppression.
I’ve often compared the prison system to modern day slavery — in particular when laws are constructed that target a specific race and mete out punishment that’s harsher for one race of people while other races receive lesser sentences for virtually the same crime … moving on. But I have also have another perspective when it comes to prison, purpose and spirituality.
I was raised with a very strong spiritual background; my mother made sure my siblings and I knew God. I’m grateful. Had it not been for all of the spiritually rich food she fed me, I don’t think I could have made it through some of the uncontrollable things that have happened in my life.
Throughout history there have always been people who were “sent” into prisons to mold them into great leaders. During the latter parts of my incarceration, I would reflect on some of the greatest historical Biblical leaders who were either incarcerated or in a place of oppression.
As I reflected on this while simultaneously pondering why I was truly in prison, I began to see things a little bit differently about my life. In particular I paid more attention to the thoughts that began to arise about my existence as I wrote my autobiography.
Writing my book forced me to pay attention to details that ultimately influenced my thought process on imprisonment. I believe there are certain people that God has plans for, and sometime He has to put them in a place where they have no choice but to face up to why He put them on Earth in the first place.
This theory of mine does not apply to every person who winds up isolated from their family, in a noisy and overcrowded prison — or for the person who lives like a hermit. But the one thing that I have come to terms with is that it applied to me.
When I was involved with illegal drug activities, I would often run into people that would try to take advantage of me, or people that would do almost anything to purchase drugs. Whenever I look back on this, it pains me to think of these people who did things they wouldn’t normally do. One night there was a man who stopped my car; it was clear to me he was highly upset and very high on drugs. I stepped out of my car to find out what the problem was. What I didn’t realize was that the guy had a gun.
Nor did I care.
The guy put the barrel of the gun directly on my forehead; I could feel the cold metal against my skin. When he placed the gun there, I told him to “pull the trigger.” I meant these three words with all of my being. I was already dead inside because of the trauma from my mom’s death by suicide; I didn’t want to live anymore, and this was my escape from life.
But just as he began to register what I’d told him to do, a car came out of nowhere and sped around the curve, and the headlights startled the guy. He ran away.
When I began to look at that moment in my life from a spiritual perspective, I was able to see a message for me that I now completely understood. God spoke through that intervention; I told this man to kill me, but God said No Vikki you are going to live, I have plans for you. Of course I could not see it in this ‘light’ on that night, but during my 15th year of imprisonment, I reflected on that night and saw it exactly as I just shared with you.
This incident along with several other factors of my life, gave me a deeper understanding to the word purpose. I did extensive research on Biblical characters, in particular Moses; as a result of murder, Moses had to run to an isolated place in order to prepare himself for the great work he had to do. Paul was a man who did time in prison and wrote 13 books of the same Bible that we carry today; Joseph was yet another man that God used for his will.
There are a number of people that God had a purpose for that were imprisoned, either through their own actions or the actions of others, including people of our day and age – Nelson Mandela in South Africa comes to mind.
Whatever the case, purpose and spirituality has its place amongst the imprisoned.

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Billboards aim to link up those who are not believers.

Billboards placed in 30 cities around the country, including Orlando, invite non-believers to connect with one another.

ORLANDO — The billboards, found at several locations around the nation, pose a simple question — Don’t believe in God?The billboards also offer an answer — You are not alone.

In a major city like Orlando, right in the heart of the Bible Belt, that might sound like an invitation to stir up a heated and angry debate. But Jack Maurice insists that since the billboards went up, the exact opposite has been true.

“Are we trying to create a controversy? No,” Maurice said. “A controversy happens automatically when people have a disagreement over their opinions.”

And that’s been true for Maurice, the the founder of the Orlando Freethinker and Humanist organization Meetup group. He’s also a member of the United Coalition of Reason, a national organization that works to raise the visibility of local “non-theistic,” or non-religious and non-spiritual, groups across the country.

It’s the main reason why the billboards were put up — to let people who are not believers know there are organizations made up of like-minded people they can tap into. There also’s a Web site,, with more information on their goals.

“We’re not out to change anybody’s faith, we’re not out to change anybody’s religious views,” Maurice said. “But the bottom line is we don’t want people constantly coming up to us and proselytizing their beliefs. Religion is a very emotional issue.”

But so far, not emotional enough to provoke an angry reaction to the billboards, which went up locally on April 12. So far the response has been 99 percent in favor, and 1 percent not so happy, he noted.

“It’s been very positive,” he said. “Typically people have a life and don’t take action against anything. On the site you will see a news room where the press release is on the billboards, and it includes testimonials, and we’ve only had one person who kind of went crazy on us, spewing hate — and there were so many words misspelled that we wonder if it was a prank. Everything else has been very positive.”

Orlando is the 30th city across the country to get either a billboard posted or one placed on a local bus. They’re hoping to allow other secular-minded people to feel like they’re not isolated in their views, and in fact that it’s easy to connect with others who share the same outlook.

“The billboards were basically just an awareness of the secular, non-theists scattered in the Orlando area,” Maurice said. “I know there are a lot of them. If they see something that says ‘If you don’t believe in God’ — and there are a lot of people who do not — we just want people to know there is a place for them to go.”

Maurice said he thinks more people are identifying themselves as non-theists or non-believers because it’s easier than ever, through the Internet, for them to connect with one another.

“It’s not just Orlando,” he said. “It’s anyone who has access to the Internet, particularly younger people. Two of our younger coalition members are from UCF (University of Central Florida) and VCC (Valencia Community College) who are also members of SSA — the Secular Student Alliance. A lot of people in college are starting to question this and use critical thinking. They don’t adhere to what they think is mythology. They no longer think that if you don’t believe, therefore you’re going to a bad place. Through the Internet and YouTube, you can get a lot of information and go in a different direction. We have almost an information overload in our country now. It’s much easier now for people, if they have time, to seek out an organization.”

As if to emphasize that point, Maurice noted that he was doing an interview with Orlando’s Channel 6 television station recently, and “a couple walked up said ‘Hey, what’s going on,’ and they were atheists. We didn’t stage that, it was just people walking by. There are a lot of people who for a lack of better words are still in the closet.”

That anxiety about speaking up used to exist, Maurice said, because it was once much more difficult in Bible Belt states for people to acknowledge a lack of belief in a higher being. “I have personally known people who have been fired for professing to be a non-theist,” he said.

That’s why they want to use the billboards to connect people.

“I don’t want to use the word mission,” he said. “We don’t really have a mission. It’s an awareness campaign to let people around these cities know there are organizations and places where you can contact people and get together. You’ll find a lot of free thinkers and a lot of these people are very highly educated, and over the years they’ve come to the conclusion that they just don’t need this. Many theists have a need to believe in an afterlife. We don’t need that. We live our lives for today.”

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