Mayor Teresa Jacobs delivered her “State of the County” address last Friday focusing on her “year of transformation” without addressing many realities facing our community and families around Orange County. In fact, this is nothing more than the “year of gentrification” and debt explosion, thanks directly to Mayor Jacobs’ rubber stamp support for the City of Orlando’s mismanagement and corporate welfare projects. This is nothing more than the year of the well-connected and well-established, not the workers and families who make Orange County the unique and diverse community that we are. And Mayor Jacobs’ speech sends the message that the status quo will go on as she failed to offer any new policies or projects, probably because we’ll be paying for all the current projects and schemes for decades to come.
While I’m disappointed that there was no official response from the Democratic Party to Mayor Jacobs – it is her re-election year (oh yeah, oops, the Dems lost our candidate to challenge her, thanks Val) – I’m not surprised at this point. But I’m more disappointed in Mayor Jacobs for her selective memory and even more selective discussion of the “state of Orange County.” So here’s a short rebuttal to try to insert some facts and realities into the conversation that Mayor Jacobs started last week.
Jacobs’ very orchestrated 30-minute speech was a litany of feel-good statements and pats on the backs for the well-connected and establishment local officials. Now it’s fine to highlight accomplishments, and for the current administration and the City of Orlando the only things they can try to claim as achievements are the controversial and over-budget Community Venues projects and other major spending projects that benefit their friends in the audience and more importantly their political donors while hemorrhaging future public budgets. But there should have been at least some attempt to reflect what is really impacting the people of Orange County as this over development continues — and Jacobs offered none of that.
Mayor Jacobs began announcing unemployment is down to 5.3% locally. But an example of our “booming” economy that number is not. The numbers are down a bit from December 2012’s 5.5% unemployment rate. While positive news, it does not tell the full story about our local economy, just as the national unemployment number is far from the reality felt by millions of Americans. Using the same Florida Department of Economic Opportunity data that Mayor Jacobs used for her “State of the County” address, out of 1.2 million Orange County residents, it’s also interesting to note that only 660,987 residents are counted in our labor force – that means Orange County currently only has a 55% labor participation rate. 625,818 are estimated employed, leaving 35,169 – or 5.3% of the active labor force – unemployed. It also leaves 45% of our county population out of the mix.
Mayor Jacobs also did not mention the fact that the metro-Orlando region ranks as the lowest-paying job market across America. Dead last. While talking about employment, Jacobs made no mention of living wages. She also resisted mentioning the earned sick-time controversy or the fact that workers across our county continue to organize and educate the community on creating the best work environment possible for our families. And those workers and their allies have sure taken a lot of the Mayor’s time at the County Commission in this “year of transformation” but got nothing over the half hour.
Jacobs cited new housing construction as another economic indicator, yet refused to discuss the foreclosure crisis or solutions for struggling homeowners and renters. In fact, Orlando still ranks number 3 in the nation for foreclosures and Orlando foreclosure auctions were up 73 percent from a year earlier.
It was also noted that Orlando’s Modeling, Simulation and Training industry is internationally respected, but we didn’t hear what news last week that the Army’s Orlando simulation and training agency unexpectedly killed a contracting program that could have been worth billions means for Orange County. This news stunned the defense industry, perhaps it didn’t register with the county yet.
Mayor Jacobs did mention that tourism numbers are up big as 59 million tourists came to visit the region last year. This is great news, but it’s not because of our local government or even Jacobs’ new branding campaign. Tourists come to Orlando mainly because of the amazing things happening at Disney and Universal Orlando and our weather. In fact, those numbers are going to keep going up, thanks to Universal’s investment in expansion including the new Harry Potter Gringotts and London land opening soon. While the Convention Center does play a big role in tourism, Jacobs did not mention the $5.6 million deficit it is running five months into its fiscal year, the biggest such gap for that period in at least five years.
Now, back to Jacobs’ new “theming” for a moment. “Orlando, you don’t know the half of it” is the new slogan in town. Yikes. As many have already noted, the awkward motto conjures up thoughts that they might not want to know the other half of it. Many of us know “half of it” is kept under wraps by the establishment at the County and City, issues local leaders don’t want tourists or business interests to see. Local leaders like to keep the blatant hypocrisy in town under wraps as well – or in other cases, their text messages. The funny-yet-sad play on words is that we, the public, don’t really know the half of it when it comes to how Orange County or Orlando are being run and what is really happening with our tax dollars.
But don’t worry, Mayor Jacobs broadcast her speech with a staffer wearing Google Glass to demonstrate her “commitment to public engagement.” So public engagement now means Google Glass, not the steady stream of public comments or community events urging changes in local policy? Maybe that’s why the public is consistently ignored at the County Commission while wealthy corporate interests and those with high-paid lobbyists get everything they want?
The next portion of Mayor Jacobs’ speech revolved around transportation. First, she spoke about SunRail but gave no details on how she intended to leave Orange County in a position to pay for it when local governments take control in a few years. Jacobs did not mention the fact that SunRail ridership decreased 65% once they started actually charging for tickets. There was also no vision on how Jacobs was going to push for a dedicated funding source for Lynx and increased routes between working class neighborhoods. It’s also one thing not to mention the recent accidents with SunRail, but Jacobs didn’t even acknowledge that Orlando is the most dangerous city for pedestrians nor did she offer any real solutions to help change that distinction.
Then she went on to promote the corporate All Aboard Florida proposal. Despite the fact that four other counties are mounting growing opposition to the high-speed train, Jacobs is open arms. But why? This Casino Express rail project will provide a direct, high-speed route for Central Florida tourists (and their tax dollars) to leave Orlando without ever stepping out of the airport. It also would mean that Orlando’s tourism would have to more directly compete with future Miami casinos and the Miami beaches.
From there, Jacobs turned to sports and culture but failed to talk about the ongoing gentrification. Mayor Jacobs also could not find a way to discuss budgets, finances or the long-term commitments being made that will leave local communities like the City of Orlando with a debt explosion for years to come. Don’t think that will have a future impact on the county? Think again. Even Mayor Jacobs herself has admitted Orlando’s credit concerns the County on the record and the budget deficits are only growing.
On the Dr. Phillips Center, we learned it will open by Thanksgiving. However, Mayor Jacobs did not remind everyone that on top of $125 million of public funds already given, she had to give the Performing Arts Center $10 million, then $25 million more in 2013, all before pushing through the controversial Venues funding which included another $25 million for it to make it this far.
She spoke about how she saw a ceremonial beam rise at the Citrus Bowl to mark its construction. However, Mayor Jacobs failed to mention how she and the City of Orlando are still responsible for impending destruction of historic Tinker Field because of her lack of commitment to preserve history and force the City to change the plans. On that note, she also conveniently forgot to talk about another historic venue, the Bob Carr Performing Arts Center (OMA) which is also on the chopping block. Funny Jacobs said “We’re creating a richer future for our children, and for the generations to come,” yet the County and City are systematically demolishing history and culture as they go.
Ah, and then we got to the new Major League Soccer stadium (which has already delayed its construction timetable). Jacobs didn’t mention the fact that the City of Orlando is currently using eminent domain to seize and demolish a community church in order to build that new soccer stadium although her speech did have a cue to “HOLD SCARF” from the soccer team while praising them.
Jacobs never mentioned the impact of all these spending projects to Orlando’s historic African-American neighborhood, Parramore, despite consistent outreach on these matters to her office. She failed to talk about the fact that her push for more funding enabled the City of Orlando’s mismanagement and debt situation related to the major development projects or bailed out “private” interests numerous times on these projects, all accelerating the gentrification of Parramore. In her fantasy, the people and businesses of Parramore do not factor into her “state of the County.” And that is very telling.
But she did want to appear to care about some in need but again missed the mark of a major mayor. For instance, she mentioned the increased Fire Department response time, which is a really good thing. But Jacobs didn’t talk much about crime or gun violence despite the fact the fourth shooting in the first week of June happened early that morning. And sadly, by the end of that Friday, another shooting would leave a man dead and another in critical condition. While Jacobs did hold a moment of silence for fallen officers, our community could have had a discussion on gun safety and violence, especially with what is going on more and more nationally.
Her brief mention of the homeless crisis was also sad. Other than “exploring new avenues” to help, she deferred to a failed “regional” effort that has stalled. Back in 2012 I reached out to Mayor Jacobs with a letter on homelessness and the crisis is only getting worse after years of inaction. She didn’t even mention all of the homeless children attending Orange County schools or how they deserve better.
There was also no discussion about how the Orange County School District will serve over 650,000 Free Summer Meals to kids over the next few weeks. That is quite the commentary on the local economic situation that the school system needs to open up during the summer to provide meals for local children.
Mayor Jacobs included a little Spanish in her speech as an overt gesture to the growing Latino community. But she offered no comment on her role in the redistricting controversy and lawsuit, creating more districts for fair representation or any services to minority and Hispanic communities. It seems like “diversity” is a word Mayor Jacobs likes to use when it is convenient in staged speeches.
Our community doesn’t need more fluff or façade, we need genuine leaders who are ready to have real conversations about what is impacting our families and happening in our community. The public deserves real solutions with real details. We didn’t get that from Mayor Jacobs’ “2014 State of the County” address.
By the end of the speech, it seems Mayor Jacobs’ is the one who doesn’t know the half of it when it comes to the real state of Orange County. Mayor Jacobs missed an opportunity – and she missed the mark, her “Year of Transformation” is really another “Year of Gentrification,” debt explosion and status quo business as usual.