Photo by Joey Roulette
Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings delivers his first mayoral address in the Linda Chapin Theater at the Orange County Convention Center on Thursday.
In his debut State of the County address, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings committed to raising the minimum wage for county employees to $15 by 2021 and announced a 1-cent sales tax increase to fund better public transportation.
Demings' three-pronged speech emphasizing "innovation, collaboration and inclusion" spared the audience inundating statistics and political jargon and instead looked forward with decisive but challenging commitments: ramping up funding for public transportation and raising county employees' minimum hourly pay to $15 by 2021.
Demings' mayoral address, his first since taking office in December, focused heavily on affordable housing, the region's surge in public-private partnerships and — garnering the biggest applause from the some 1,500 people in the audience — the pressing need to bolster public transportation. He also touted Orlando's growth, dropping numbers like MCO's record-breaking 48 million travelers in the past year.
"We all feel the pain of a transportation infrastructure that is over capacity every day," Demings said. "Instinctively, we know this is a problem that will only grow more cumbersome. Our housing and transportation needs are inextricably tied together."
Commuters in Central Florida waste an average of 46 hours a year due to traffic congestion, Demings said, citing a recent League of Women Voters transportation report, and SunRail doesn't run as often as needed. He compared the region's network of 320 Lynx buses with Pittsburgh's, which is a city "of similar size" with over 700 buses.
"I look forward to leading efforts to pass a 1-cent sales tax that will allow us to fully fund a transportation system that can better serve us well into the future,” the mayor said.
The 1-cent increase would put the county transportation tax at 7.5 cents — the first such idea since 2003, when the county's "Mobility 20/20" transportation initiative promised a similar boost but crashed off-course when voters rejected it in 2004 elections. Demings said Orange County voters will see his transportation tax plan on the 2020 ballot.
"Building our community together will require a laser-like focus on connectivity specifically as it relates to our transportation infrastructure," Demings said, adding that investments in public transportation should correspond with Orlando's skyrocketing population. "If our goal is to empower every citizen and resident, we will need to build public transportation."
The mayor said he'd convene public input sessions on the transportation idea to see what works for Orange County citizens. Completion of the I-4 construction nightmare, he added, was "within reach."
Demings also urged local businesses to raise employee wages to $15 as he announced a wage hike of his own.
"It is my commitment that every full-time Orange County employee will earn a minimum of $15 an hour by 2021," Demings said. "The time is now for other employers in our community to join me in this effort."
He lauded the county's falling crime rate (down by 7% since last year) and said he'll work with Orange County Sheriff John Mina to continue support for "patrolling our neighborhoods." He also touted the $3.5 million award Orange County received under the Urban Area Security Initiative, a federal program aimed at bolstering local resources for policing, public safety and surveillance.
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