WINTER GARDEN – It sounds like the kind of platform that Tea Party conservatives ran on, quite successfully, all across the nation last year.
“Essentially no more tax increases, no more fee increases, and as far as the water and sewer and garbage rates, hold the line there,” said Rod Reynolds.
Many of those candidates ran for Congress, promising to tackle the federal budget deficit with proposed spending cuts.
For Reynolds, though, an upcoming municipal election on March 8 will determine whether the limited government concepts of the Tea Party movement can also be applied to local politics – very local.
In this case, it’s his bid for a second term on the Winter Garden city commission.
The office may sound awfully parochial compared to the halls of Congress, but interestingly, many of the issues Reynolds is espousing are similar: whether or not to raise taxes, whether to use tax breaks as an economic incentive, and whether government should provide bailouts – funded by taxpayers – to businesses that are struggling to survive.
“Logically what you would think, if you were a business person, is if the money is not there, you just can’t do it,” Reynolds said. “You can’t do it if the economic times are not in favor of your business plan. But in local government at all stages, they have the ability to reach into your pocket against your will and take those funds.”
Reynolds served on the Winter Garden city commission from May 2005 – when he was appointed to fill a vacant seat on the commission by then Gov. Jeb Bush — through March 2006, when the term expired and Reynolds went back to running his local business.
“I took a recess, a breather,” he said.
He was lured back into the arena of city politics, he said, when the Winter Garden commission agreed to provide a loan to the historic Garden Theater in downtown.
In late 2009, commissioners opted to forgive a $1.3 million mortgage owed to taxpayers, and decided to pay an additional $138,000 to help the 75-year-old theater on West Plant Street settle its debt with a contractor. The city bought the theater in 2003, citing its historic significance to the downtown – it was built in 1935. At a price tag of $275,000, it was supposed to be a part of a long term effort to redevelop and revitalize the downtown area.
Reynolds said this is part of an ongoing effort by city leaders to bail out businesses in the downtown that are failing economically. He said the free market system, not city leaders, should decide which merchants stay in business there.
“What fired me up to get involved in this election is this theater issue,” he said. “The majority of the business owners down there don’t even live in Winter Garden. However, there is a certain group that controls the downtown corridor and the rest of Winter Garden has been subsidizing a few businesses in the downtown area. It’s penalizing everyone else in the city to subsidize those few in downtown.
“Everyone is in favor of having a nice downtown,” Reynolds added. “I’m just saying the timing of this is not right. The downtown has been injected over the last few years with a lot of tax revenue from the overall city, and half of the surplus we had from the boom period has gone into the downtown area.”
Reynolds said if businesses can’t survive, let them close and let a new entrepreneur come in and replace them.
“It’s gotten to the point now where it’s beginning to be a penalty to the rest of the city,” he said. “At some point you have to become self-sufficient. The businesses in that area have continuously rotated with a lot of vacant stores and tenants changing hands.”
In tough economic times, when cities and counties have been forced to make steep budget cuts, “Winter Garden has actually raised our taxes, and they’ve made some budget decisions within the year which to me are unconscionable,” including the Garden Theater bailout, construction of a downtown water park, and giving city workers a raise, he said.
“To do all this, we had to raise our millage (property tax) rates,” he said.
Reynolds recently picked up the endorsement of the Orlando Area Realtors Association. Reynolds credited that to his support for tax breaks for people who buy foreclosed homes, removing them from the market.
“The real crux of the problem around the state and the nation is that as long as these foreclosures are sitting there and more are coming onto the market each day, that drags the prices down and puts a strain on government,” he said. “I think city and local government could contribute to helping to move these properties by giving incentives on local property taxes. That could motivate people to buy. Why not give a buyer an incentive to get in and buy that home, like a three year break on their property taxes? At least within three years that home would be generating revenue. Otherwise, everyone else has to pay a higher percentage of the burden.”
The biggest challenge in running for municipal office, Reynolds said, is a tendency among voters to look at familiar faces, not issues.
“As far as local offices like this, people have a tendency to vote more for friends than they do for the issues,” he said. “That’s unfortunate in Winter Garden. The issues we’re running on are things not just Tea Party people would be behind, but voters in general. In local politics, it seems like emotion rules more than logic.”
Reynolds is a registered member of the Florida Tea Party and, if elected, will become the first member of the party to win public office under that party’s banner.
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