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Speak up to fix rail agreement

I take the job of being an elected representative of the residents of Winter Park very seriously. When I campaigned for city commissioner, I promised to protect and preserve the public interest above special interests, to make decisions that would benefit our entire community and to make fiscally responsible decisions on behalf of the taxpayers.

I have voiced opposition to the commuter rail project over the years due to the exorbitant costs, lack of local and federal funding, low ridership projections, old diesel technology and the commuter route that meanders through our neighborhoods. Nevertheless, the task at hand is to ensure the agreement between Winter Park and Orange County provides crystal clear options for our city and eliminates vague and open-ended terms and unknown financial implications.

There are good reasons this 99-year agreement is being questioned. Many things have changed since 2007 in terms of the economy, the project costs and details, and stipulations of the agreement. The terms run counter to the state constitution that sets out to protect taxpayers from the spendthrift tendencies of public officials who would load future commissions with obligations to pay for things the present desires but cannot justly pay for as they go. It is also unlawful to bind the hands of future commissioners.

Our right to "opt out" is critical as no one has a crystal ball to foresee what impact 56 daily diesel commuter trains and unlimited evening freight will have on downtown Winter Park, Central Park and our neighborhoods. No one can predict potential adverse impacts such as traffic congestion, lack of funding, poor ridership, increase in crime or a decline of neighborhood property values. Should we take such risks with a bad agreement?

Additionally, the annual operating deficits that you are expected to pay have already increased by 38 percent to $500,000 per year (even before one train has run!) and there is no annual limit on these costs. Orange County should be picking up these costs to operate and maintain the system, as are all other counties on the proposed rail corridor. Why should we pay and pay twice? You and I already pay nearly a third of our taxes to Orange County yearly.

Question those people who are berating my fellow commissioners and me for the audacity to look out for you, the taxpayers, by renegotiating this unilateral agreement with Orange County now. Ask yourself what motivates them to push for an "agreement-at-any-cost." Investigate who is behind the YES YES Political Action Committee.

My job is to represent you. In light of all we know today and what has changed in the last three years, it is imperative that we act now to ensure the agreement is lawful and safeguards our rights, our quality of life and our financial future.

If you would like to weigh in on this discussion, public input will be taken during the May 24 City Commission meeting shortly after 3:30 p.m. You can also contact your commissioners at mayorandcommissioners@cityofwinterpark.org. Let your voice be heard.

—Beth Dillaha

Winter Park Commissioner

Protect the city from liability

Anyone feeling uneasy about the coming SunRail commuter service might be interested in the Winter Park city attorney's recent 10-page legal opinion letter on his concerns regarding numerous issues in our agreement with Orange County.

It's heavy going, but the letter's on the City Web site under Government/City Info/City News/Commuter Rail Information. If you can't get through it, the following is a recap of sorts, and you can attend the May 24 Winter Park City Commission meeting, where there will be a discussion on the language changes suggested by the city attorney in an effort to correct the current flaws.

To begin with, the city attorney worries that previous mistakes and oversights could leave the city open to successful legal challenges, since, in his opinion, aspects of the contract appear to be unconstitutional.

Furthermore, he suggests that: (a) language regarding funding sources for Winter Park's contractual fees to the system may present an open-ended, uncapped, long-term hardship for the city; (b) the city's opt-out clause is vague and extremely limited; and (c) the city has no voice in management or funding decisions, unlike Orlando and the other funding partners.

Winter Park taxpayers are justified in asking whether and how these substantive, far-reaching concerns are being addressed.

Just one example of a problem is the structure for the payment of operations and maintenance costs to the county. Winter Park pays 100 percent of an assessed fee, although it actually owes only 70 percent. The city may then request a refund in writing within 30 days, and the county has 45 days in which to refund the 30 percent — interest free, as I understand it — which was not even owed in the first place.

What sense does it make to give another party the use of your capital, interest free, for possibly over two months? Also, why is Winter Park being charged individually for O&M costs? Cities in the other three counties are not required to pay; those counties cover their costs.

The citizens of Winter Park, in 2007, voted that the city may use city funds and city land for a commuter rail station. That vote was not a green light for a flawed, open-ended agreement, which will result in double taxation — without representation — for Winter Park. In times like these, as our own city attorney has pointed out, it is critical to (a) get a fair deal that makes "business sense" for the Winter Park taxpayers, (b) protect the city and taxpayers from open and unknown liability, and (c) ensure the city has absolute authority to make a clean break and opt out of the system in the future if necessary.

—John Rogers Jr.

Winter Park

Time to fire a Cannon

In listening to Rep. Dean Cannon's woefully tardy, highly evasive response to the oil drilling mess he has championed, I'm reminded of the scene in Billy Wilder's 1959 classic movie titled "Some Like It Hot."

In the lobby of the fictional Seminole Ritz Hotel in Florida, a Chicago gangster submits to a police frisking. When a revolver drops out of the hood's left pant leg, he exclaims, "It ain't loaded." Seconds later, the right pant leg reveals dozens of bullets that scatter all over the floor. It's hilarious on the screen, but decidedly less so in Florida politics.

I can almost hear Rep. Cannon's impassioned assertion that he used to oppose Florida coastal oil drilling, but changed his stance due to recent safety advances that would prevent oil spills. For the sake of analysis, let's give Rep. Cannon the benefit of the doubt on this and take him at his word.

Logically speaking, Rep. Cannon's oil drilling stance should have reverted back to his original position the minute he saw the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon oil spill drama unfold on CNN. Rather than admit the obvious, he stonewalled for days. Finally, press reports indicated that Rep. Cannon would revisit the oil drilling issue this summer after the oil spill cause had been determined. Shortly thereafter, the Observer quoted Rep. Dean Cannon as saying "I don't see anything happening for the next two or three years." Wrong answer.

It should have been intuitively obvious to Rep. Cannon that Florida's hurricane-prone waters posed an oil-drilling safety threat that couldn't be fixed. No oil rig could withstand a Hurricane Andrew. Period.

But, the special interests didn't pay him to think that way.

—Will Graves

Founder, Friends of Florida's Coasts