magic no more? DeSantis questions Disney’s special operations city in Florida

MIAMI — Imagine Disney having to go through its local planning and zoning plan to build a new castle. Or if it suddenly had to rely on Orange County, Florida, and other local jurisdictions to pick up its trash.

Or when it could no longer sell its own bonds to build roads in its parks.

That could happen if some Florida lawmakers get their way.

On March 30, Spencer Roach, a member of the Florida House of Representatives representing State House District 79, tweeted that he and other lawmakers continue to debate repealing a special legislative act that created the Reedy Creek Improvement District. It is the unique zone – believed to be the only one of its kind in the United States – that operates Disney’s largest theme park and resort in the Sunshine State.

The discussions came in response to that Disney’s new opposition to the Florida House Bill 1557, dubbed by critics the “Don’t Say Gay” statute, which restricts the teaching of sexual orientation or gender identity.

When asked about the unique arrangement during a public appearance Thursday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis indicated that Disney has long received special treatment that it may no longer deserve.

“Someone said Disney had all these special perks,” DeSantis said. “Should you get revenge on them if they come out and demagogue this bill? I don’t think you’re “retaliating” but I think what I would say is that I generally don’t support special privileges in the law just because a corporation is powerful and it has been able to wield a great deal of power. “

Pictured: Supporters march at a rally at The Walt Disney Company in Orlando, Florida, led by supporters of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation on March 3, 2022.
Supporters march at a rally March 3 at the Walt Disney Co. in Orlando, Fla., led by supporters of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP Images for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation

The Florida Legislature is not currently in session, so any action taken would require a special convocation, which leaders in the Florida House and Senate have yet to announce.

In an interview Friday afternoon, State Rep. Roach Reedy called Creek “the largest tax evasion scam in Florida history, if not US history — and we’ve had our share of Florida scams.”

“You have an advantage,” Roach continued, “and it’s an anti-economic freedom. That’s my inclination here. Really, the fundamental question should be: why did we do this in the first place? As Floridians, we believe in freedom.” Markets or not? If we do that, then that is wrong.”

Disney did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

So what exactly is the Reedy Creek Improvement District and what does it enable Disney to do?

build castles

As founder Walter E. Disney looked to build his second theme park and resort in the mid-1960s, he began lobbying the state of Florida to grant his company full jurisdiction, which would function as the equivalent of a county government but retain its own special rules.

In 1967 the Florida legislature created the Reedy Creek Improvement District. This governorate, which controls approximately 25,000 acres, would be responsible for paying for community services, including electricity, fire protection, water, waste disposal and roads.

Day-to-day operations are separate from Disney, but as the largest landowner of Reedy Creek, the company effectively controls the district board of directors.

The formation of Reedy Creek frees Disney from seeking approval from a local planning commission to build new structures or paying government fees when it builds new structures.

“You can sympathize with that desire,” said Richard Fogelsong, a retired political science professor at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., and the author of “Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando”, a book about the making of Walt Disney World. “They wanted to build things like a 500-foot fiberglass castle — and there’s no clause in local law for that.”

Most important, however, is Reedy Creek’s ability to collect taxes and issue bonds. For the current fiscal year, the district has a budget of more than $169 million — more than 90 percent of which comes from collecting property taxes on Disney properties.

That means it can avoid the local government headaches that often accompany asking residents to pay taxes to fund infrastructure.

“It allowed them to create the typical community services at a level that Disney wanted for its properties,” said Tom Wilkes, an Orlando-based attorney at GrayRobinson who has worked on Reedy Creek-related matters. “So the streets are usually a step or two higher than outside the district.”

As a result, Reedy Creek currently retains an AA bond rating from Fitch, one of the largest credit rating agencies in the United States, which notes that Disney has large reserves and is able to maintain extensive revenue-increasing powers, ensuring high levels of financial flexibility .

It’s not clear what impact Reedy Creek’s dissolution would ultimately have on Disney’s bottom line, Wilkes said. If anything, it could end up costing area taxpayers more if local governments had to start maintaining Disney parks, he said, noting that Disney pays property taxes to Orange and Osceola counties.

“Disney pays when it comes to government services,” Wilkes said. “It pays the two districts and two district school boards – and gets very few benefits in return. There are no exceptions there.”

“shot in the bow”

This isn’t the first time Florida officials have questioned Reedy Creek’s status; In the past, Disney has agreed to pay up to $13 million in exchange for upkeep of the district.

As an Orange County legislator put it in the 1980s, “Disney is without question the largest taxpayer in Orange County. Without question, Disney is the largest employer in Orange County. And without question, Disney is having some of the biggest impacts in Orange County.”

Roach, the legislature representing the state’s 79th House District, said pending a special session of the Legislature, no bill to challenge Disney’s influence on Reedy Creek could be introduced until 2023.

“Right now it’s just an idea, although it’s not a new one that I’m thinking about and connecting with some colleagues,” Roach said. He continued, “Disney is politically vulnerable, and they’re in a position now that if it’s politically possible to rectify this free market aberration… although it may look like retaliation on the surface, the timing is in the.” politics important. ”

“And if we’re going to address that, the time isn’t when they’re untouchable, it’s when they’re politically vulnerable.” magic no more? DeSantis questions Disney’s special operations city in Florida

Caroline Bleakley

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