Fla. bill causes uncertainty for Disney's Reedy Creek Fire Department
Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill dissolving the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which funds the department
UPDATE: April 22, 2:36 p.m. PT: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law two bills targeting The Walt Disney Co. on Friday, eliminating the company’s special Reedy Creek district and stripping its exemption from the “Big Tech” social media bill.
Skyler Swisher and Ryan Gillespie
ORLANDO, Fla. — Dissolving Walt Disney World’s Reedy Creek Improvement District could saddle local taxpayers with about $1 billion in debt and leave local governments scrambling with how to take over vital services for Florida’s top tourist attraction.
State legislators passed a bill Thursday that dissolves the district The Walt Disney Co. uses to self-govern its Florida theme park properties on June 1, 2023. Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has been battling with the entertainment giant, was expected to sign it into law.
What happens next is unclear, but Orange County’s tax collector and other opponents of the bill say ending Reedy Creek could lead to higher taxes for Orange and Osceola residents.
The Legislature did not conduct an economic study on the ramifications of dissolving the district. Legislators spent only two days examining the bill, unveiled on Tuesday, providing little opportunity for public input.
Not even the bill’s sponsors — Sen. Jennifer Bradley, R-Fleming Island, and Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay — could provide the intricate details of how Reedy Creek would be dissolved, saying the matter will be hammered out in the next year.
[Read next: Reedy Creek: The happiest fire department on earth]
Democrats warn property owners could be hit with higher tax bills if Republicans proceed with their plan. Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, estimated it would cost the average family in Orange and Osceola counties $2,200 to pick up the district’s outstanding debt and obligations. No detailed nonpartisan figures have been produced on the potential tax liability of dissolving the district.
“It’s shoot first and ask questions later. ... And maybe if Disney behaves over the next election cycle, we’ll undo it,” Farmer said.
Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said Thursday that taking over Reedy Creek’s “first response and public safety components” with no new revenue would be “catastrophic” for the county’s budget.
“It would put an undue burden on the rest of the taxpayers of Orange County to fill that gap,” he said.
WHO GOVERNS DISNEY WORLD?
Established in 1967, Reedy Creek allows Disney to use its own building codes and inspectors, avoid bureaucratic red-tape and issue tax-free bonds for its theme parks and resort property in Florida. Disney essentially taxes itself through the district to pay for roads, water treatment and other important services for Walt Disney World.
Reedy Creek owns and operates wastewater collection and treatment systems, electrical utilities, solid waste and recycling collection, as well as its own fire department. The Orange County Sheriff’s Office provides law enforcement protection.
Disney’s private government has been likened to Florida’s 68th county or a “Vatican with mouse ears.” The unique government structure involves Reedy Creek and two cities that Disney controls — Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista.
Those cities have a combined population of about 53 people, according to census data. The residents are trusted Disney employees, making the two cities company towns controlled by Disney, said Richard Foglesong, author of “Married to the Mouse,” a book about the creation of Disney World.
If Reedy Creek is dissolved, top-line items will include determining how its 40 square miles of land straddling both Orange and Osceola Counties would be governed, how its assets would be distributed and its debt paid, said Lee Constantine, a former state representative and senator and the incoming president of the Florida Association of Counties.
“You’re going to have to flush out where the assets go,” said Constantine, a Seminole County commissioner. “Who’s going to pay for them? Are they going to be given to counties? Are the counties going to pay for them? Whatever they are, whatever the debt service is, it’s got to be paid. I can assure you those bondholders … are going to want some entity to guarantee those bonds.”
“At this point, there’s more questions than answers,” Constantine added.
Four local governments would be involved in those discussions — Orange and Osceola counties and the Disney-controlled towns of Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista.
A spokesperson from Osceola County said its staff would begin evaluating the situation if and when final action was taken. Reedy Creek and Disney did not respond to requests for comment.
Senate President Wilton Simpson said he expects the matter will be discussed further when the Legislature convenes next year with input from Disney’s legal team. A plan could be developed that creates “efficiencies” that save taxpayers money, he said, adding that other theme parks in the state operate without independent districts.
“I think it’s just a matter of getting the teams together and sorting through it,” Simpson said. “I think it’s that simple.”
Fine, the House sponsor, said he thinks a different type of taxing district could be formed that could raise money to maintain Reedy Creek’s roads and other assets without burdening taxpayers or giving Disney unique powers.
Leaders would have to determine what happens to the district’s nearly 400 employees, including about 200 people who work for the Reedy Creek Fire Department.
Firefighters and other district employees are closely watching and hope to be part of conversations on the implementation of the bill, said Jon Shirey, president of the Reedy Creek Professional Firefighters Association.
“Our primary concerns are the livelihood and well-being of our members, retirees, and their families,” he said.
Settling with bondholders could be another complicated matter, and investors have been mystified by what is happening in Florida, said Eric Kazatsky, a senior strategist for Bloomberg Intelligence specializing in municipal bonds.
Florida’s bond documents include a covenant — a commitment to investors — that the state will not “limit or alter” the rights of Reedy Creek to collect revenue, including levying taxes. Kazatsky said he’s spoken with investors and others in the bond market who are puzzled by what is happening in Florida.
“It’s a lot of head-scratching, and are they even allowed to do this?” he said. “It seems like they have a legal hurdle here. They have covenanted to do something.”
TAX COLLECTOR HAS CONCERNS
Scott Randolph, Orange County’s tax collector, estimated absorbing Reedy Creek’s liabilities could cost property owners an extra $200 to $250 a year in property taxes. That’s a rough estimate, though, based on Reedy Creek Improvement District’s financial statement and the assumption Orange County absorbs Reedy Creek’s liabilities.
Reedy Creek collects about $164 million in property taxes to maintain roads, utilities and other services, which is almost entirely paid by Disney.
If Reedy Creek were dissolved, no other governmental entity would have the authority to collect that money, Randolph said.
“There is no windfall to the county,” Randolph said. “There could be a ton of expenses with no additional revenue to cover it.”
Disney would continue to pay property taxes to Orange and Osceola counties, school districts and other entities as it has in the past. Reedy Creek enables Disney to avoid some other taxes, such as impact fees and sales tax on construction materials.
Governing Disney World and maintaining its surrounding property is a massive undertaking. Reedy Creek maintains 134 miles of roads and 67 miles of waterways, according to the district’s statistics. It handles 60,000 tons of waste and recycles 30 tons of aluminum, paper, steel cans, cardboard and plastic containers each year.
The district hosts 250,000 daily guests, which is more than the 196,000 people who live in Tallahassee, the state capital. With 77,000 pre-pandemic employees, Disney World is one of the largest single-site employers in the United States.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, questioned whether the Legislature’s effort would inadvertently help Disney financially.
“The assets include roads, which we would be unlikely to shut off,” he said. “A dump. A power plant, which we would be unlikely to turn off. A fire station, which we would be unlikely to shut down. So those assets, we would now take over the operations, the maintenance and support of, and Disney would be able to walk away from that ... debt.”
A MATTER OF FAIRNESS OR POLITICAL REVENGE?
Republicans said Disney gets special treatment under the law that no other theme park in the state enjoys.
“Universal doesn’t get to create the Jurassic Park Improvement District to govern itself,” said Fine, the House sponsor. “They have to abide by laws of the cities and counties where they exist.”
DeSantis called for legislators to dissolve Reedy Creek and five other special districts created before 1968. He’s attacked Disney for opposing legislation critics branded the “don’t say gay” bill. In return, Disney, a powerful player in state politics, paused its contributions to Florida politicians.
Democrats countered that the bill is more about political retaliation and retribution than corporate accountability. Farmer called it “punitive, petulant political payback to a corporation who dared to say the emperor has no clothes.”
Disney’s autonomy is part of the reason why it’s been able to make Disney World a unique attraction, and undoing Reedy Creek could generate a protracted legal battle, said Bob Jarvis, a law professor for Nova Southeastern University.
“It will lead to a lawsuit, so the taxpayers will be funding the defense,” Jarvis said.
Reedy Creek: The happiest fire department on earth
As the sole provider of emergency services for Walt Disney World properties in Orlando, Fla., Reedy Creek Professional Firefighters have one of the most unique missions in the country
(Staff writers Katie Rice and Steven Lemongello contributed to this report.)
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