LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – At a special meeting of the board of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District — formerly the Reedy Creek Improvement District — Gov. Ron DeSantis’ hand-picked members told concerned business owners their taxes would be raised to help pay for lawyers during the governor’s ongoing fight with Disney.
Board Chair Martin Garcia on Wednesday accused Disney of not “working together” with the new board, claiming the company “picked the fight.”
“They decided that a couple of weeks before this board takes action that they’re going to tell the Florida Legislature and the governor and this board that they can’t act according to Florida state law,” Garcia said. “...Bottom line, what our lawyers have told us is factually and legally (that) what they created is an absolute legal mess, it will not work, OK? But, nevertheless, and this is going to answer some more questions from our small business owners, we had to hire lawyers to first evaluate these eleventh-hour agreements, and they have evaluated them, and that’s going to cost us money, OK? And because that is going to cost us money, we are going to have to raise taxes to pay for that, OK?”
This comes after months of promises from DeSantis and his allies that tax increases would not come to Orange or Osceola county taxpayers as a direct result of the district dissolution. As it turns out, they could land on business owners in places such as Disney Springs for now.
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The meeting was board members’ first since they gathered last week, voting to give themselves “superior authority” over the district, including Lake Buena Vista, where the district is headquartered, and Bay Lake.
Two days prior to that, the governor held a news conference to announce some of his administration’s legislative strategy behind Florida’s plan to nullify the agreement between the old board and Disney — made 19 days before the district was renamed and restocked — transferring decades of district control to the company.
The board on Wednesday voted to void that agreement and its related restrictive covenants, as well as to centralize comprehensive planning, zoning and land development regulations of the cities of Bay Lake and Buena Vista to itself and to prohibit COVID-19 restrictions and mandates at businesses in the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.
In the discussion ahead of the vote on COVID-19 restrictions, a resident — Deborah McDonald — spoke to the board.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think one of the foundations of being a Republican is that we try not to be too heavy-handed on businesses, that small businesses and other businesses can make decisions and operate without fear of heavy-handed legislation. Restricting a business or making a decision about COVID-19 may seem like it’s casual to you, but people died, a lot of people died, and I think this area took responsibility in ensuring what they could do by losing billions of dollars — by the way, as a corporation — to protect people,” McDonald said. “...This feud, and whatever it is that Gov. DeSantis (is) using as political stuff for presidency, it’s not going well for him, we’re the laughing stock. Let people do what they do, don’t come in with your lawyers from Tallahassee and turn our world upside down.”
After the void vote was passed, the Walt Disney Company sued DeSantis, the acting secretary of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity and the district’s board members, alleging the defendants violated the company’s constitutional rights in a “concerted campaign of retaliation because the company expressed an opinion with which the government disagreed.”
Things have since broadened in the Florida Legislature as well, with an amendment passed Tuesday to SB 1250, a transportation bill, which would subject Walt Disney World’s monorail system to periodic state inspections.
The week before this, SB 1604 was amended to include language that would allow newly elected or appointed members of an independent special district board a period of three months to begin complying to a development agreement and a period of four months to review and vote on development agreements.
DeSantis’ fight with Disney started after the company condemned Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law, known to critics as “Don’t Say Gay,” which was signed last year and is now on its way to impacting all high school students.
The board will reconvene for its next special meeting on Monday, May 1, at 9:30 a.m. in the Wyndham Lake Buena Vista Resort.
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