11:52 PM EST, February 11, 2010
In the past two weeks, we've learned that Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and City Hall are booting out nonprofits from one side of the city to the other — literally.
First came news that the city was ready to kick a horse-riding program for the disabled out of Trotters Park on the northwest side.
Then came news that the Florida Safety Council was getting bumped out of its longstanding home east of downtown — so that one of Buddy's top staffers could start her own charter school.
Forget the City Beautiful. Orlando's looking more Brutal-ful.
It's also looking as if City Hall insiders get inside deals.
We'll start with the Safety Council.
For two decades, the council has operated in a city-owned building near Orlando Executive Airport, offering classes on everything from safe driving and workplace safety to victim awareness.
Then somebody else decided they wanted to use the Safety Council's building. And that somebody happened to be a high-ranking city official: Deputy City Attorney Jody Litchford.
Apparently Litchford's co-workers thought her idea was a dandy one. So they booted out a rent-paying tenant — eight years before the lease was up — for one that would move in rent-free for the first few years.
Now, no one is questioning the value of the school — which would cater to students who have struggled in other schools. And Litchford has said she won't make a dime off this nonprofit venture — which makes a difference.
But there are legitimate questions about why this start-up nonprofit got an opportunity that simply wasn't available to other nonprofits that have been serving this community for years.
"There was no opportunity for any other group to express interest," said Phil Diamond, the lone council member to oppose the deal. "No advertisements. No request for proposals. Nothing."
City officials say that any deserving nonprofit can make a pitch to set up shop in a city building — even one that is currently occupied.
I'm not sure that passes the smell test. But if we take them at their word, then: Good news, nonprofits! Apparently, the city's real estate is up for grabs. Just pick your building, occupied or not, and make your rent-free request.
There's also the issue about this deal's cost to taxpayers.
Booting out the paying tenant in exchange for one that will go rent-free for the first few years is expected to cost taxpayers about $200,000 during the next three years — something that wasn't mentioned in any of the "fiscal impact statements" provided to council members.
City officials say they will recoup that money over the long-term lease with the school. In fact, they say taxpayers will be better off a decade from now.
But that's only if the charter school succeeds. (Many don't.) And also, the time when the city will be losing money (now) seems awfully inopportune, because the city is currently so cash-strapped that it's cutting city services and furloughing workers.
Summed up Diamond: "This is about finances and fairness."
On the other side of town is Freedom Ride — the group that has used horseback riding to help special-needs members of our community for years.
Let's start with just how politically tone deaf City Hall has to be to pick a fight with a group whose sole purpose is to help the disabled. Why not launch a campaign against the troops and the American flag while you're at it?
Freedom Ride uses horseback riding as therapeutic help for everyone from brain-damaged teenagers to adults with cerebral palsy. The exercise stimulates both muscles and the brain and helps those with autism, mental retardation, multiple sclerosis and other conditions.
The group has been riding at Trotters Park for years. But then the city sent word that it didn't want to extend the lease when it expires in two years.
The rationale was that the city wants to build ball fields there instead. And that might make sense … until you realize that the city doesn't have the money to build those fields.
Forget fields of dreams. These are merely dreams of fields.
It makes little sense to evict a worthy program when the city doesn't even have a replacement ready.
To the city's credit, officials seem to realize this, albeit belatedly. Contacted this week, Dyer's chief of staff, Brie Turek, said that Dyer and his staff want to work with Freedom Ride to find a solution that's more acceptable, possibly allowing the group to stay longer.
They certainly should. Because if city officials think folks are howling now, imagine what they'll hear if Freedom Ride gets booted in a couple of years — for ball fields that don't exist.
Scott Maxwell can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-6141.
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