Buddy Dyer, Staying on Track

Unyielding in his backing of SunRail and the performing arts center, Orlando’s mayor returns to the top of our list.

Hand Buddy Dyer two humiliating defeats in the quixotic bid to bring a $1.2 billion commuter-rail system to Central Florida and here’s what you get in return: He helps lead a third, even more desperate crusade—one requiring a special session of the Florida Legislature—and this time his side wins.

Tell the Orlando mayor he can’t afford any more ambitious public-works projects because the recession has blown a hole in the city budget, and here’s what he says: We’re going to spend $250 million to start work on a performing arts center. And while we’re at it, we’re going to bulldoze 68 acres of city-owned land on the west side of downtown and gamble on a   privately backed high-tech “Creative Village” to rise from the rubble.

What is it with this guy? Why does he keep plowing ahead like this in times of economic uncertainties while others preach caution? What makes him think he can load more onto the city’s debt burden at a time when tourism is in the tank and property taxes seem to be in freefall?

Whatever it is, he has used it to fashion a winning record in the past year, which is why the editors of Orlando magazine have selected Dyer as the most powerful person in Orlando.

“Well, when there are things that are extremely important to the community you can’t be deterred by the circumstances,” Dyer says.

After topping the power list in 2008, he fell to No. 5 in 2009. Last year, Dyer was stung by the city’s ongoing budget crisis and he was on the losing side, for the second straight year, in the battle over the SunRail commuter system. SunRail’s nemesis, state Sen. Paula Dockery, finished one spot ahead of Dyer on the 2009 power list even though she’s from Lakeland.

Finally, as if all that weren’t enough hard luck, came a symbolic blow: An August bolt of lightning fried the innards of the Lake Eola fountain, crippling the half-century-old Orlando icon and confronting cash-strapped City Hall with a hefty repair bill.

But Dyer looked right past a fiscal crunch that, since 2008, has led him to raise property taxes, eliminate 257 city jobs and cut  services, and even threaten to lay off  police and firefighters to close city budget shortfalls exceeding $40 million for fiscal 2010. (Next year’s budget situation appears even more dour, with a projected $55 million shortfall forcing City Hall to weigh further cuts.) As his seven-year record as mayor would suggest, he shunned a cheap fix for the fountain and instead vowed to upgrade it to a state-of-the-art, light-and-water show, with a private insurer covering $285,000 of the $1.5 million tab.

“The Lake Eola fountain is much more than just a fountain. It’s a symbol of our community and a source of pride for our residents,” Dyer reportedly said two months after the fateful lightning strike. “So we are going to rebuild the Lake Eola fountain better than before.”  (By late May, water was spouting from the fountain again, the result of a Band-Aid repair while the city continues working on the landmark’s full-blown overhaul.)

Looking back, Dyer’s pledge to restore the fountain may have  signaled his resurgence. But the real turn in his luck had come 10 days earlier—on Oct. 5—when U.S. Reps. John Mica and Corrine Brown brought U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to Orlando to warn regional leaders that their failure to win approval for SunRail could mean fumbling away billions of federal dollars for a high-speed rail line connecting Orlando to Tampa.

That threat gave Dyer and other local leaders the leverage they needed to retool SunRail plans and win new endorsements for the 61-mile commuter-rail line stretching from DeBary to Poinciana. Dyer was on the front lines of the lobbying effort, and he was on the floor of the state Senate in December to declare victory when the plan was approved, 27-10, in special session. Barely a month after that, he was in Tampa for President Obama’s announcement that the federal government would kick in $1.25 billion for the Orlando-Tampa high-speed rail line.

“So it was kind of a double whammy,” Dyer says. “And we’ve gone from zero to 60 in terms of passenger rail here in Central Florida.”

The rail victories gave Dyer momentum to break the recession’s blockade on the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. Originally planned to be built all at once at a cost of $425 million, the arts center stalled when Orange County tourism tax revenues, a funding source for the downtown venue, dried up.  To revive the project,  Dyer in March pushed through $69 million in city-backed bonds on top of $60 million that had been previously approved to go toward a $250 million first phase of construction. While not a drain on the city’s general operating budget, the bonds are tied to the precarious health of a downtown special taxing district that has also been hit hard by the real-estate collapse.

Skeptics point out that the downtown district, called the community redevelopment agency, skims away property-tax dollars that would otherwise be going into the Orange County government’s till. They also have questions about the long-term solvency of SunRail as well as whether sufficient transparency exists in the city’s partnership with private developers on the “Creative Village” gambit.

“Sooner or later somebody’s going to have to step up to the plate and pay,” says former Orange County Commissioner Lou Treadway, now a member of the County Watch bipartisan watchdog group. “And by the time all this comes home to roost, Buddy Dyer and all the boys and girls up there are going to be gone.”

Dyer just shrugs when asked about criticism that he’s rolling the dice with the city’s financial future. He insists that the bonds were sold based on the most conservative assumptions. And he says the rest of the city’s finances are being run that way, too. Getting through this slumping economy and back to a more stable tax base will be only a matter of time and patience.

Orlando will come back, Dyer vows,  just like its mayor and its battered crown jewel at Lake Eola Park.

Categories: Features