A controversial commuter rail deal between the city, the county and the state took center stage at Winter Park's City Commission meeting Monday, as City Attorney Larry Brown stopped just short of calling the SunRail funding agreement unlawful.
Most of the issues surrounded potential liability costs in the event of an accident on the rail lines carrying the SunRail system, set to begin rolling in as little as two years.
"It seems through the back door the city could arguably end up being asked to pay for Orange County's proportionate share of costs including liability costs," Brown said.
Specifically he cited a statute in the SunRail deal inked by state lawmakers in December, which Brown said could make Winter Park's end of the deal risky to undertake.
The statute passed in December 2009 "more clearly exposes the FDOT to very broad liability for accidents including accidents that were not the fault of the government," Brown said. "I think FDOT has passed on that responsibility to Orange County, and Orange County has passed along a portion of that to Winter Park."
Some commissioners in the past had argued that the city should avoid entering into its rail funding agreement with Orange County because of the financial risks.
Commissioner Beth Dillaha echoed statements that detractors of the deal had made two years prior, but used more forceful language to denounce recent changes to the agreement that she said made the deal even worse.
"What's been pointed out, which we've been talking about for two years, is this is a very bad contract on a number of levels," Dillaha said, pointing to a list of recent payouts the city had to make due to what she called bad contracts.
"We've just had two instances ... with the termination of the previous city manager because of a poorly-written contract that nobody understood, and we just had to pay $1.1 million, which is highest in the history of Florida, which is nothing to be proud about, and the Carlisle, which was another political project ... $3.7 million pay out," she said.
"We're looking at this agreement, which is a liability for five generations of Winter Park residents, and it has been pointed out time and time again what is wrong with this agreement," she said. "And for us to just put it off for a future conversation or put it off to a future commission and say, 'You deal with the grenade when it goes off' is fiscally irresponsible, and I think it's unethical. We need to deal with what we've got before us today. It's our job."
She called for the Commission discussion, which was only for informational purposes on Monday, to be turned into a workshop so that the city may be able to come to a decision. With an end of April deadline to sign a new contract looming, Dillaha said time was of the essence.
"Given the magnitude of all of this and the few amendments that have just come down from FDOT ... the one in particular that relates to the fact that if the [operation and maintenance] caps are exceeded, then the counties are going to have to pay those overages or they're going to have to give up some transportation projects, well it's essentially extortion in my mind," Dillaha said. "Essentially there are no caps."
Mayor Ken Bradley agreed that if the Commission wanted to see a change or even keep the agreement the same, it needed to put the item on a Commission agenda to vote on it, rather than just discussing it.
"We've read this, and I think each of us probably have our own opinion on this," Bradley said. "If we want to open this up for dialog, if we want to open it up to terminate it, if we want open this up to amend it, open it up to keep it, then it needs to be [put on the agenda]."
Brown said that if the city decides to change or terminate the agreement, it should have the legal grounds to do so.
"If you direct us to renegotiate an agreement, I think it's very doable," he said.