Though skeptical, Orange County commissioners won’t rule out transportation tax

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Reluctant Orange County Commissioners agreed Tuesday to continue exploring a possible sales tax hike for transportation on the November ballot — but warned Mayor Jerry Demings that he has a big job ahead to convince them.

“I’m skeptical of it,” said District 3 Commissioner Mayra Uribe while District 2 Commissioner Christine Moore nodded her head in an agreement. “The bottom line is I don’t see anything different from two years ago.”

In 2022, county voters trounced a proposed penny-per-dollar sales-tax increase for 20 years aimed at creating better and safer roads, more punctual Lynx bus service and an expanded SunRail commuter line, with 58 percent voting no. Demings, the leading proponent of the 2022 ballot effort, returned to the commission in early February to suggest another go.

But commissioners were cool to the idea then, and have not warmed significantly in the last six weeks.

“I remain optimistic about at least having a conversation, whether or not we will put it on the ballot this year in 2024 or we’ll look to some point in the future, I don’t know at this point,” Demings said in an interview after the board’s workshop discussion Tuesday morning. “But what I’m saying to this board is that in 2022, there were few who really put their political capital on the line to try to get it passed for the benefit of the people.

“Today I heard less ambivalence than I’ve heard before,” the mayor continued. “This is all about the political will of the board to advance to the ballot for the referendum. The board won’t decide to tax the people. It’s the people who will make that decision.”

There is no disagreement that the needs are vast.

Orange County’s $6.7 billion budget for fiscal year 2023-24 includes about $100 million for transportation, but the county has said its transportation needs, by some measures, amount to $21 billion.

Alternate possibilities this time around are to consider a shorter tax — ten years instead of 20 — or a smaller tax, perhaps a half-cent rather than a full cent.

County staff estimate that a half-penny sales tax increase would generate $379.5 million a year, 10 billion over 20 years while a 1% bump would generate $759 million a year, $20 billion over two decades.

Demings and county staff have four more community meetings scheduled to drum up support for the tax after holding two so far.

Demings said he is optimistic voters ultimately would pass the tax needed to transform the county’s congested and dangerous transportation network.

“I can tell you I hear it every day from numerous constituents about problems with traffic congestion to a lack of multimodal transit system…I listen to those people.”