When Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings gave his Oath of Office speech in December, he outlined some key focus areas for Orange County in 2023. Mayor Demings also touched on the tough times for the local community.
“With COVID-19, a volatile economy, a tense political climate and two recent major storms all within the last year, our community has been chronically stressed, so leadership does matter, especially during tough times,” he said. “As a public servant, I can honestly say I’m prepared to lead in not only the best of times, but also during the worst of times.”
Mayor Demings predicted that during the next four years, growth management will consume much of the County’s intellectual capital. Among the complexities Orange County will be wrestling with include land-use decisions, environmental impacts, housing affordability, social services, livable wages, public safety, health equity, and transportation infrastructure.
“Making certain all our residents have access to broad-based prosperity should be our key aspirational goal,” he said. “The question is … can we maintain focus over time?”
Mayor Demings added that while there will be many 2023 initiatives, his top four priorities include addressing the affordable housing crisis, developing long-term solutions to our regional transportation issues, driving economic development and enhancing public safety.
Finding a dedicated funding source for regional transportation systems must be a priority. The mayor promised that although the penny sales tax initiative did not pass on the ballot during the November 2022 elections, Orange County will continue efforts to create public/private partnerships across Central Florida to address the myriad of challenges the greater Orlando area faces as it grows.
“I’ll be forward-leaning in finding solutions to a scalable mass transit system that improves connectivity, reliability, affordability and access,” he said. “We’ll look to slice the $21 billion transportation needs to improve vehicular traffic flow and improve pedestrian and bicycle safety pathways.”
“We can’t adequately address these issues if we don’t further diversify our economy and create higher-wage jobs,” he asserted. “We must balance growth by ensuring we protect our environment and use innovative strategies in urban planning.”
Economic development is central to sustaining smart growth, and Mayor Demings said Orange County must have a ready work force that can fill the jobs necessary to sustain the tremendous economic growth experienced in recent years. To accomplish this, the County hopes to work with the Orlando Economic Partnership in the recruitment of new diverse industry types such as technology firms, manufacturing companies, life-science businesses, financial service firms.
As part of its commitment to improve wages for County employees, the County worked with labor unions and Board of County Commissioners to increase wages to a minimum of $15 per hour. It also brought back longevity pay for all employees, increased the number of paid holidays and increased educational reimbursements.
“We’ll continue this commitment in 2023,” said Mayor Demings. “We’re now exploring ways to ensure workers employed by contractors who do business with the County also receive livable wages.”
In terms of affordable housing, the mayor said the goal is to create more opportunities for the development of affordable housing through regulatory changes and incentives. Mayor Demings also wants to encourage diversity of housing types, mixed-income development and sustainable building and infrastructure techniques; and preserve the existing housing stock through financial mechanisms and community partnerships.
In 2019, the County created its first Housing Trust Fund, which includes investment of approximately $160 million during a 10-period and building 30,000 new affordable and attainable housing units. In 2023, it will create its first Tenant Advisory Office, and implement a Tenants Bill of Rights program. The County will also continue to focus on rental assistance.
“Our crime rate remains relatively low, and I intend to keep it that way,” Mayor Demings said. “We’ll continue to increase the number of first responders and provide them with adequate pay, equipment and training needed to provide quality fire and EMS services.”
In 2023, Orange County will break ground on a new fire training facility that will be one of the best in the region. It also recently opened Fire Station 68 and plans to open several more stations in 2023, which will increase the total number of County-operated fire stations to 45.
“We’ll continue to explore alternatives to incarceration and treatment for the mentally ill and substance abusers without sacrificing community safety,” Mayor Demings said.