We had 1,000 reasons to be overjoyed when we learned recently that WMFE terminated its contract to sell its TV station license to a local front for Daystar Communications, a religious broadcasting company from out-of-state. Not only does Orlando have more than its fair share of religious broadcasting on the airwaves right now, it also has more than its fair share of evangelicals seeking ridiculous tax breaksand creating high drama in Jesus' - by all accounts - otherwise good name. Just this week, Trinity Broadcasting Network gave us one more reason to give thanks to the Lord that WMFE's board came to its senses and acknowledged that bringing more God TV to town wasn't really good for the market - nor, Happytown has determined, is it good for our local economy.
In February, a suit was filed in southern California that accused TBN (which operates our very own tax-exempt Holy Land Experience theme park) and its founders, Paul and Jan Crouch, of financial impropriety. The suit - filed by an angry in-law who once borrowed money from the Crouches, somehow incurred their wrath and was then sued by them for allegedly being late on repaying the loan - says the Crouches lived high on the hog using TBN money, buying expensive homes, jet planes, fancy cars and even a $100,000 motor home for the family dogs. It claims that the Crouches hired their granddaughter - Brittany Koper - as TBN's chief financial director in 2011 because “the directors needed somebody within the family that they could trust to keep Trinity Broadcasting's financial skeletonssafely in the closet.” Apparently Koper is not a very good team player and an even worse secret-keeper because she was fired after three months on the job. TBN claimed it was because she and her husband had embezzled from the organization. The suit says that's not true and that Koper is now ready to call her grandparents on their bullshit.
“Mrs. Koper and her husband defied Trinity Broadcasting's directors and senior executives by reporting and refusing to participate in unlawful financial schemes disclosed to Ms. Koper,” the suit says, indicating that TBN hid “more than $50 million in unlawful and reported income distributions to Trinity Broadcasting's directors.”
Why should you, Orlando citizen, care? Because two of the luxury mansions that TBN owns and uses to house its people in the manner to which they've grown accustomed - that is to say, the fat, lavish lifestyle enjoyed by those who appoint themselves emissaries of god - are right here in Windermere, and the Crouches were trying to get Orange County's property appraiserto exempt them from taxes. According to the suit, the Crouches falsely report multiple estates owned by TBN as “church parsonages to avoid income disclosures” and that the Windermere mansions “were purchased by Trinity Broadcasting Florida for the personal useof Paul Crouch Sr. and Janice Crouch.”
According to county property tax records, the exemptions on the mansions - valued at $1.4 and $1.3 million - would have saved Trinity Broadcasting (and cost Orange County taxpayers) close to $50,000 per year.
Jesus is coming. Look busy.
Speaking of how we spend taxpayer dollars (or, in this case, how we don't spend them), Gov. Rick Scott signed the state budget last week and took full advantage of his veto power to axe more than $142 million worth of spending from it. Among the cuts were massive reductions to health-care programs around the state, ranging from rape crisis centersto vaccination programs to psychiatric care. One of the line items cut by the governor included $500,000 for the Apopka Family Health Center,which helps low-income farmworkers who labored for years on muck farms around Lake Apopka deal with a myriad of frightening health conditions likely resulting from exposure to toxic pesticidesthat were rained down on the farms - and the workers while they were in the fields.
This is the second year in a row Scott has written off the Apopka Family Health Center, a fact that angers advocates for the farmworkers.
“I'm depressed, outraged and disgusted,” says Jeannie Economos of the Farmworker Association of Florida, which has been working on environmental justice projects in Apopka alongside the workers, many of whom suffer from lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer and other ailments they suspect are linked to pesticide exposure. “I'm concerned about the fact that 13 years after birds died on Lake Apopka due to pesticides, nobody has done anything to address the farmworkers' health issues.”
Scott said that many of the cuts he made to the budget were to programs he felt shouldn't have been the state's problem in the first place. So, in other words, he's passing the buck. And why not? Everybody knows that farmworkers don't have a lot of money. They don't have high-powered lobbyists, and they don't have ALEC on their side. In Florida, that means they might as well be invisible.
“$500,000 is not a lot of money,” Economos says. “But it's important in the fact that it would be validating to this community. … Really, they should be putting millions into the community to address these issues.”
Maybe next year. But probably not.
Ever since United Arts lost its bulldog- for-the-arts president and CEO Margot Knight, who left town in November for a new gig at a San Diego arts colony, it seems like assaulting local arts organizations has become something of a sport for certain local politicians. Shortly before Knight left, Orange County Commissioner Ted Edwardsgrilled United Arts on its mission and funding, which led to a larger inquiry about the value of arts to the community in general.
“It's troubling, especially in these economic times, we are giving to these elitist groupswith no accountability,” Orange County Commissioner Fred Brummer told WFTV Channel 9 at the time. That discussion is still ongoing, and some county commissioners continue to demand that United Arts justify its existence.
An arts-related brouhaha erupted in Maitland, as well, when city councilman Phil Bonus raised a ruckus over whether Maitland Art & History Museums - an organization that was pretty much constructed by the city of Maitland to take over the operations of both the Maitland Art Center and the Maitland Historical Museum to make them more efficient - is efficient enough. His take: It's not and he wants the city to take over the organization to make it “revenue neutral,” rather than costing the city any money. Because, you know, art doesn't give anything back to the community, so it better start working to earn its keep. Right.
So no better time than now for United Arts to announce that it has finally hired a new president and CEO. Flora Maria Garcia,CEO of the Metro Atlanta Arts & Culture Coalition, takes the reins of United Arts beginning May 29. The veteran administrator, it seems, is no stranger to fighting for a pittance from local governments: “The government doesn't understand the value of the arts to communities. They think of it as an extra, not a necessity,” Garcia was quoted as saying by the Marietta Daily Journal in 2011. “We need to continue to raise awareness about the economic impact and value of the arts for tourism and the economy. Most arts organizations don't talk about themselves as economic drivers to their elected officials.”
Sing it, sister. Welcome to town.