Interview with Commissioner Linda Stewart–Orange County–District 4
Conducted by: West Orlando News
Date: March 5th 2010
WONO: Commissioner Stewart, could you begin by introducing yourself? Tell us a bit about Linda Stewart?
Linda Stewart: I have been a Commissioner on the East side of Orange County for seven years, representing 267,000 people, the largest district in all of Orange County. It’s been my privilege and pleasure to do that, and two years ago, I was re-elected for a second term. I have been an advocate for neighborhood beautification, public safety and red light cameras. I introduced the bill to put park impact fees in place so we could have more parks and and we’ve gone from 43 parks to 95. There are a number of projects that are really dear to me. I concentrate more on family-oriented programs, as well as healthcare, and the public, where the needs are the greatest.
WONO: You were elected, I believe, in 2002 to the Board of County Commissioners, District 4 and subsequently re-elected, as you just mentioned. What has that experience been like as County Commissioner?
Linda Stewart: Well, basically, I never thought I would run for public office. I was–like everybody else–raising my children, taking leadership positions in the Parent Teachers Associations. I ran a tennis league of 1,500 people, men and women and was the United States Tennis Association District Director. I did a lot of work with the homeowners associations on the Eastern side of town and basically, after all my children were grown, felt I had a lot more to give and a lot of time, so that’s when I decided to seek public office. It wasn’t something I had always aspired to do, but, felt it was necessary and thought I had the education and the background to pursue it. So, I decided to run against an incumbent.
WONO: The unemployment rate in Orange County last December stood at a high 11.8%. Against a backdrop of rising unemployment, what can be done to create jobs in Orange County?
Linda Stewart: I have, throughout my entire administration, at my own expense paid to travel throughout the United States and the rest of the world, to look for opportunities to bring companies to Central Florida to provide jobs. It’s particularly important now that the economy is at a very low ebb. But given what employment is in Central Florida, we need to make sure that we can go out and locate these jobs. I was the first commissioner to go to La Jolla, California, as I’ve said, on my own, at my own expense, to talk to Scripps and also to Burnham. I was the first elected official to go to Burnham and speak to them about coming here to Central Florida. There was no other Commissioner and we’re very happy that we got them here. So, now we have an anchor. But, what we’re missing and what I’m concentrating on is, manufacturing jobs and green tech, green collar jobs, because that’s the wave of our future and that’s where we need to go. We need apprenticeship programs to teach our young people how to install the new type of installation, which is typically cotton. There are so many new types of things that’s going to make life not only easier, but more healthy for living in a green society and they need to learn how to employ these green types of applications. So, we need apprenticeship programs, we need to get these kids that are not interested in going to college, but need a good paying job, into these programs, to learn a trade or a skill. And the manufacturing jobs are where we need to go and in particular green collar jobs.
WONO: You were very instrumental in getting the Burnham Institute for Medical Research to relocate to Lake Nona, you just touched on it. Now, I think that Florida has a graduation rate of 47th in the nation. How do you reconcile those two things, high paying jobs on the one hand and a very low graduation rate on the other.
Linda Stewart: Well, not everybody is going to be in a position to go to college. And actually we need skilled workers to take on the jobs that we want to create in manufacturing. So, we absolutely have to get those opportunities for the young people who won’t necessarily rely on college, but can have a very good skill that pays more than $10 an hour, so they can have families and continue to live here amongst their family members in Central Florida. I have gone to Colombia and more recently, to Puerto Rico and I am talking to these companies, to perhaps bring their very successful businesses here to Central Florida. One of the companies that has an interest is a high-end ladies underwear manufacturing company. There is another bio-fuel company that takes byproducts of things that we wouldn’t use, like oil or corn or other types of trash and turn it into fuel, so that we don’t have to pay the high cost of regular gasoline. So, we’ve got a lot of opportunities with new technologies that we can offer to our young people, to learn these skills and actually be employed here, if we can get the companies to Central Florida. As I had brought in Burnham, with the research and bio-sciences that they undertake, it does require a high level of sophistication in education. We can do the same thing with manufacturing jobs too–bring in companies, creating a way for our people to be employed. And that’s what we need to do now, to concentrate in that mid-level area, but with good paying jobs.
WONO: Commissioner, in order to have a balanced budget, the Orange County 2011 fiscal budget would likely have to be cut by about 7%. Now, I am aware that the 2010 budget was already cut. Where do you anticipate that new cuts could come from?
Linda Stewart: We’re going to have to combine, I think, some departments. I don’t think we can scrimp any more on public safety, the Fire Department or the Sheriff’s Office. There is always some place in everybody’s budget where they can save a little bit, maybe in paper or fuel or something like that, but we don’t want to take any cops or firefighters off the street. So, I think we have to be very careful about paring expenditures down in this area, as that could then lead crime to go back up; we’re doing a lot better with our crime statistics these days. So, I would say let’s not go there, but look at consolidating. Consolidation is a huge thing. I think we have failed to look at this. We need to look at how we might be able to combine some services with the cities, in order to realize cost savings for all parties. We are both struggling with our budgets, but I certainly think there is room for consolidating. We can look at code enforcement, parks, the fire departments and things of that nature to see where we might consolidate and not have two different departments, which really cost a lot more money to have two, than one. So, I would be advocating for consolidation, not of the entire city and county, but of departments or services within departments that we could combine and still be efficient.
WONO: You have long been a proponent for protecting the environment, and have advocated for a number of programs aimed at protecting wildlife corridors and water resources. How do you assess progress in that regard in Orange County? What were the outcomes of the Blue Ribbon Neighborhoods program and is it being scaled up?
Linda Stewart: We have got to continue to protect our environment. It’s only given to us once in our lives. We don’t have the opportunity to recreate an environment when we destroy it. It costs more to rectify environmental problems, as the Lake Apopka project demonstrates. When you over-pollute a lake, it’s non-functioning and it also costs three times as much to clean it up. So, we have to always be conscious of our wildlife corridors–what our rivers mean to us, what our lakes mean to us and we have to protect them. We don’t have to always go way out, create sprawl and put in infrastructure that currently do not exist. We need to start building within cities, that is, redevelopment of neighborhoods to bring them up to more of an urban standard. Where there are older neighborhoods, we need to develop plans that could put in the development, maybe three stories and put the shopping on the bottom and the condos on the top and infill where public services are already available, such as the buses, sewers, and fire departments. We need to take those older neighborhoods, older business communities, strip malls and redevelop them into a new urban design where we can put more people in that area, and it creates the jobs and also the living arrangements too. So, we’re been doing it the wrong way. We’ve been going out farther and farther destroying our environment, destroying the wildlife corridors. What we need to do is think about how we can redevelop and turn those areas that are downtrodden into higher quality living and shopping areas, along with other facilities, including schools.
WONO: Commissioner, you have advocated for mass transit and SunRail is closer to becoming a reality. How do you anticipate that SunRail would impact Orange County and is the funding in place?
Linda Stewart: We have the funding in place and we have finally laid the framework, the spine for a public transportation system. But, we’ve only just begun and the connection between the high-speed rail and SunRail is important. I have worked with Congresswoman Corrine Brown and Congressman John Mica and I know we will have that connection between SunRail and high-speed rail, a component that doesn’t exist today. What we don’t have is, our LYNX bus system and other forms of public transportation into the neighborhoods, to bring people to the multimodal stations where they can then have access north and south. So, those are the areas we need to work on. We need dedicated funding–either a two-dollar surcharge on rental cars, or it could be a gas tax that we could apply, or we could put some initiatives on the ballot for the people to decide how much they are willing to spend for public transportation.
WONO: You mentioned LYNX a moment ago and I know that their budget was cut, leading to routes being dropped last year. Is that likely to be the case this year?
Linda Stewart: No, we have been assured after last year’s cuts in bus routes, there will be no more this year. We have gotten some stimulus funds which have been able to help us for two years. But, when 2012 comes, if we aren’t ready and if the economy hasn’t improved to a certain point or we haven’t passed any permanent funding source initiatives, then there is likely to be a catastrophe for our public bus system. So, we have made it through two very bad and tenuous years, but we cannot continue like this and we are going to have to do something by 2012.
WONO: Orange County has a problem of homelessness and along with Osceola and Seminole Counties I believe that almost 3,000 people are chronically homeless. What’s been done in Orange County to deal with homelessness and what has been the impact of the One-stop Project Homeless Connect events?
Linda Stewart: I don’t think that the One-stop Project has made a great deal of progress. I can tell you though, on the east side of town where I represent, and there are three districts on the east side besides my own, we have been able to acquire a grant that will allow us to put a drop-in center on the east side of Orange County, where the homeless and those that are nearly homeless, will have a place to come to do job applications and get services that they can’t get right now. Most of those people on the east side are currently living along Econlockhatchee River and out in the woods. And that’s not any different from what is on the west side, because I’ve been to the west side and they have problems with homeless individuals having to live in the woods. So, we’ve got besides the Downtown where many homeless go because of the bus system, they are really throughout Orange County– it’s west, it’s east, it’s north, it’s south, but yes, a high concentration in Downtown. We have not been able to get political support. I think we have community support, but we haven’t had political support to be able to help and actually make an impact on the homeless. And it is a crying shame that we live in the United States of America and we have no way of helping those in need that are downtrodden and without a roof over their head. And as you can tell, this winter, when it was so cold, we aren’t prepared with coats and blankets and things of that nature in Florida. I had to do a complete drive in order to get coats and blankets to some people, because we’re not prepared for that. But, we need shelter beyond that of the Coalition for the Homeless, Salvation Army and the Rescue Mission, as they get filled up very rapidly. We need additional facilities and places for our homeless– to be able to house them until they can find a job, get themselves situated and be able to pay on their own. We haven’t been able to ratchet up the support that we need for that, but we need to – that is an area we really need — because it’s only going to get worse, it won’t get better.
WONO: Commissioner, could I press you a little bit on that? Why isn’t the political support there for doing more in this area?
Linda Stewart: Because I think that, there has always been a question, “Where do we put the homeless? Where do they go?” And there is this attitude that, I don’t want them in my backyard, I don’t want them here, don’t bring them here. But, the failure is that the political will is not there. The homeless population isn’t what it used to be ten years ago. It’s not the drug or the alcohol addict that is homeless on the street now. These are families, these are people who once had a job, who actually once had a roof over their head. These are couples that absolutely have fallen on hard times and may have found themselves now homeless due to foreclosures and other situations. So, the homeless population is not the same as it once was and we’ve got to understand that the homeless could very well have been your next-door neighbor and now they find themselves homeless. So, we’ve got to change the attitude of the people, as well as, the politicians. It’s not the same type of individual. It is truly quite different; 40% are families.
WONO: Commissioner, one in every ten residential properties in Orange County is in foreclosure and I know that there is a Neighborhood Stabilization Program. How is that progressing?
Linda Stewart: We got $26 million for purchasing and renovating foreclosed homes, but we don’t have near what we need because of the amount of foreclosures. But, we’re doing pretty well. We actually are doing better than probably any other county in the state of Florida. We are renovating the homes with ENERGY STAR and products that are newer, reselling them to new buyers and getting them occupied and back on the tax rolls. I’m happy to see that the banks can no longer foreclose on a home unless they have contacted and tried to work out an alternative method of payment or refinancing. This was not happening three or four months ago. The judges have been very supportive of that and won’t even sign the foreclosure documents, unless there is an indication that attempts have been made to resolve the situation. Before, there used to be no communication with the home-buyer and banks, financial institutions, just foreclosed. This new approach has been helpful in reducing the number of foreclosures and the lending institutions are working a little harder to keep residents in their homes. But, we do not have near the money that we need to renovate and resell all the homes that are in foreclosures. So, that’s going to continue to be a problem until the economy picks up. But the good thing is, I think, we’re seeing less and less foreclosures.
WONO: You have been County Commissioner now for seven years. Is there anything you would have wanted to accomplish, but just weren’t able to do?
Linda Stewart: Well, I’ve been trying to get red light cameras up for the past five years and I would like very much to accomplish that this year. So, that’s one of the most frustrating things. I have been advocating for getting cameras to act as a deterrent for those people running red lights and killing others, but so far that hasn’t happened in Orange County.
WONO: Commissioner, you are now running for Mayor of Orange County, tell us a little bit about your vision for the County, and in particular District 4? What would be your priorities if elected Mayor?
Linda Stewart: Well, as Mayor, you’re going to represent all six districts, so I have to look at how the diversity in our community has evolved into an international community and how everybody has different needs. But my biggest thing is, I do not feel that anyone should be discriminated against for any reason. We need to be more open-minded about the people that live here and we need to have the doors open at the Mayor’s office. We need to encourage all ideas and those folks to develop a genuine working relationship, so that they can also come and open small businesses and get some help from us. A lot of times what’s happening now is, the big companies are laying off people who are very experienced, very knowledgeable and they’re opening up small companies. We need to encourage these entrepreneurs to continue to open up the small businesses so we can build on that. So, my big push is going to be recognizing the diversity in our community, making sure that everybody has a seat at the table and working very hard and diligently with the small business community to make it happen. I want to make sure that there are jobs, not just for those that graduate from college, but those that cannot or do not choose to graduate from college–jobs that pay a decent wage and also apprenticeship programs are incorporated to train people. Many of the unions have apprenticeship programs and we need to start utilizing them with the training of these young people, and also those that want to change jobs. Similarly, for the adults, maybe they were in the hospitality industry, but now want to get into green collar jobs–we need to be able to allow them to change jobs and be trained in a new job. So, I think those are the kinds of things that are going to make us successful in Central Florida and with a Mayor that understands that. We need to put people to work, we need to find ways to put them to work in many different aspects, we need to encourage the small business owners and we need to encourage the redevelopment of older areas, to bring in the development that we need to provide for our future, without creating sprawl and havoc on our environment.
WONO: Final question. How is your Mayor campaign going and will we be seeing Orange County Mayor Linda Stewart coming November?
Linda Stewart: Well, Linda Stewart is doing very well. I am fortunate to have been in office for a number of years, with a good reputation, very ethical and people understand that the issues I am focusing on, are very helpful to them. I’ve always tried to respond to the people. I am the only Commissioner that has neighborhood office hours on Thursdays, in the fire station in my district where, the everyday person can walk in off the street and talk to me at anytime. No other Commissioner has that kind of openness with the public and I think that’s why my popularity is, what it is, because I try to help people. I may not be able to always help, but I am there always to help. And I think people trust me, they feel that I am going to be the type of community provider whose door is open and that I am approachable. Most people don’t call me commissioner, they call me Linda. And I don’t expect that to change because, I am just like you. I am just like everybody. I am the person that has a home and children and I just want to respond to the citizens of Orange County.
Diversity is extremely important and focusing on the economy to generate more jobs, than is currently the case, are critical issues. But, Linda Stewart, running for Mayor, I am enjoying the race. I am enjoying the fact that the people seem open to me and I feel that, if the election were held today, Linda Stewart would win.
WONO: Thank you, Commissioner.
Linda Stewart: Thank you.
More About Commissioner Linda Stewart
Linda Stewart is a woman changing Orange County! She has been a long time community activist, current Orange County Commissioner, and is focused on becoming the next Orange County Mayor in 2010.
In 2002, Linda was elected to the County Commission where she has led the effort to preserve green space and create new parks. She initiated a park impact fee on new development that resulted in millions of dollars being set aside for new parks. Linda also made numerous economic development trips at her own expense seeking new employers and new jobs for Orange County.
In 2005, Linda was determined to visit both the Scripps and Burnham Institutes in La Jolla, CA. Her initial contact with the Burnham executives led to this biomedical research giant expanding into Central Florida to become the anchor of the new medical city in Lake Nona.
Now, Linda is running for County Mayor to replace the term-limited Richard Crotty. Her goals include continuing her aggressive efforts to bring more jobs to the county. A trade mission to South America this month is evidence that she’s not waiting for jobs and employers to seek us out, she’s taking action now to get them!
Linda has been a strong advocate for mass transportation, green jobs, and energy efficiency industries, in addition to preserving our reputation as the family entertainment capital of the world. Along with our Congressional officials and agencies, she has been a leading local voice in support of a new high-speed rail system that would connect Tampa, Orlando, and Miami while creating thousands of new jobs for the region.
Additionally, she pushed for changes to state law that stiffened penalties for illegal street-racers and continues to work for the installation of red-light cameras to enhance pedestrian and vehicular safety and provide funding for a first rate trauma center.
The current economic climate affects everyone in our community. Linda’s push for consolidation of government services such as code enforcement, parks departments, emergency management, and fire services would save taxpayers money and increase the efficiency of service provision. Her office also distributes information about temporary assistance from the county to help residents in financial need to pay their bills and avoid foreclosure. She continues to hold meetings to address the growing numbers of homeless in our community.
She is married to Jerry Stewart, and has two children and six grandchildren. In her spare time she enjoys bike riding, playing with her grandchildren, and planning projects to serve the needy and the community.
Contact Commissioner Linda Stewart
201 S. Rosalind Avenue, 5th Floor
E-mail: [email protected]
Fort Gatlin Shopping Center
4729 South Orange Avenue
E-mail: [email protected]
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