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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