Interview with Commissioner Tiffany Moore Russell-(District 6), Candidate for re-election to Orange County Commission
Conducted by: West Orlando News Online
Date: June 9th 2010
WONO: Commissioner, you were elected in November 2006 to the Orange County Commission, what has that experience been like?
Tiffany Moore Russell: It has been a very awesome experience having the opportunity to impact and create policy that will benefit the next generation; it has been tremendously exciting to be creating laws for future lives beyond mine. Sure, there have been ups and downs, but it has also been challenging and very rewarding, making tough decisions during hard economic times.
WONO: At the inception of your administration, one of your goals was to make Orange County a safe, responsible community. How do you access progress on that front after nearly four years?
Tiffany Moore Russell: We have seen a reduction in crime and much of the credit goes to the sheriff’s department, in that regard. One of the things we implemented after I got elected was the Matrix Study to see if we had the required number of deputies, based on our population level. The study revealed that we were undermanned and due to my efforts we continue to support the increase of the number of deputies for the sheriff’s department. So, we had to increase the budget, bringing it to the level the department is supposed to be, in line with the study’s recommendations. More police presence translates into more proactive policing, instead of reactive policing and I think that has helped with the reduction in crime. Also, continuing to fund the Safe Neighborhood Partnership program, where we targeted two areas in Holden Heights to help and support off-duty patrolling, in addition to the regular patrolling by the sheriff’s department, has been very helpful. In addition, I implemented an initiative with the Tangelo Park Community where a private company provided $50,000 to have off-duty officers patrolling, to help address some of their issues in the area. I think it is those kinds of efforts that have helped to make the communities safer places for the residents to live. I think we have been successful in doing so and as a result have seen a reduction in crime.
WONO: You were instrumental in establishing the Pine Hill Task Force. What is the role of that task force and what has been accomplished so far?
Tiffany Moore Russell: We’ve had a lot of studies undertaken over the years, under Commissioner Butler and several others. When I got elected a lot of the residents were saying, “We’ve always had these studies but nothing ever gets done.” So, I said, “Let’s put together a task force to develop a plan.” There must be a plan in place before a community is re-developed. So, the Task Force has been together for a couple of months now and several ideas are being discussed regarding the redevelopment of Pine Hills. Subsequently, a plan would be developed and then we would need to identify funding for its implementation. At that stage I propose to come back to the Board of Orange County Commissioners to say “How do we fund this plan?” So, currently the Task Force is in the process of putting together this plan, and they are looking at various issues such as, the overlay zoning district and how to create incentive pockets for companies desirous of moving their businesses into the area.
WONO: The unemployment rate in Orange County is about 12% and I know economic development has been one of your top priorities. What’s being done to create jobs for the youths, particularly in the Pine Hills area?
Tiffany Moore Russell: There have been efforts made to attract businesses to the Pine Hills area, but I should point out that, many times other entities are competing with us. Typically, we go out and try to offer incentives, as Pine Hills has an enterprise zone and there’s lots of incentives to locate in the area. Quite recently, we were not successful in attracting one company that would have created 200-300 jobs; it would have required employees to have degrees. In my four years, I was successful in providing incentives to expand the power system. It’s not in Pine Hills but down in the industrial corridor on OBT. The Development Task Force in Pine Hills has got to look and see what kind of incentives we can extract. What we have done and will continue to do, is to pass a waiver of impact fees, if a company was to move into existing buildings and this will reduce their cost. There are a lot of empty shopping centers and we have been using that as an incentive to try and attract some businesses. We continue to try to identify companies that will fit within the community of Pine Hills. It may not be a large company that employs 2,000-3,000 persons, but smaller type companies that will create 200-300 jobs.
We also have an initiative to market to minority companies who may want to expand and utilize Pine Hills’ great incentives. We have two entrances to SR-408, which are great for moving goods and supplying communities. We also have to create other incentives to help make the development process, including the permitting and zoning, smooth. We are looking to create zoning opportunities so when companies come in, it’s not a hurdle to move their businesses here. It is going to require several things, but again, we are competing with other communities.
We are continuing to try to find other opportunities because job creation is key. Outside of Pine Hills we are continuing to open hotels and recently, two new ones opened their doors on I-Drive. A lot of people from Pine Hills are working on I-Drive and although the jobs are not in Pine Hills, we will continue to create job opportunities for the residents. Of course, we have to ensure that LYNX continues to be reliable, as a good public transit system is essential for moving residents back and forth.
WONO: What are the near-term prospects and long-term prospects for attracting this private sector investment, particularly Pine Hills and Tangelo Park?
Tiffany Moore Russell: Tangelo Park is a small, isolated community and so it won’t be hard to attract jobs in that corridor because of the tourism sector. There is no space to put a company in Tangelo Park, but there are developments which have been approved on Sand Lake Road, but have stalled because of the difficult economy. But, it is not going to be hard to bring jobs there, as it so close to the hotels and Convention Center.
For Pine Hills what is going to be key is redevelopment, in-fill development; finding incentives to attract companies to come into an existing community. That is going to require more state partnering and quite a bit of funding. When you look at cities such as Miami Gardens or Baltimore, it took real money to bring about their redevelopment. You could have a lot of initiatives, but it will take millions of dollars to redevelop Pine Hills. Now, one of the good things is the renovation of the Evans High School. Recently, we have gotten some feelers from companies saying, “Now that you are renovating Evans High School, what does that mean?” So, we have to be ready when Evans High School is completed, to put some money behind incentives, because that is what companies are going to be looking at to determine whether or not they move their businesses into the area.
We are going to have to target some specific corridors for redevelopment; maybe Silver Star and Pine Hills; Silver Star and Hiawassee; Route 50 at Hiawassee, or Route 50 at Pine Hills. How we transition those shopping centers into job centers will require several things. I am going to need the support of the Board to put some funding behind redeveloping Pine Hills. It would also require working with our state senator and state representative to get state dollars, or some matching funds to support incentives to help attract companies into the area. The potential is there because you have schools and relatively good infrastructure. Recently, I submitted an application to get some federal appropriation dollars to create a pedestrian bridge for Pine Hills, the Pine Hills trail. If we could get all of those things to come together, we would start to see more businesses in the corridor. We’d have to show we have access to good public transit, so that company employees are able to move to and fro, easily. Also, we would need to understand what other cities are offering, as we would be competing with them and we would need to demonstrate what is unique about Orlando and in particular, Pine Hills, to encourage companies to relocate here. So, I think the prospects are great, however, it will require several levels of support from the State Legislature on down to our Mayor, whomever that will be. We also have to identify incentives to help grow smaller companies, because, if truth be told, 55 percent of all jobs are created by small businesses. So, we have to identify the tools to help them grow their business and this too, will create more jobs.
WONO: Commissioner, you just touched on the issue of a good public transit system being crucial for West Orlando folks and certain parts of the district that you represent. Last year bus routes were cut. How has that impacted residents who have to rely on LYNX and will there be further cuts this year?
Tiffany Moore Russell: The cuts are huge because it’s less convenient to use public transit. The goal is to have less wait time and headway, that is where you want to go. So, when you start cutting routes you make people go through a longer process; they have to take a different bus and it takes them a lot longer to get to their destination. My understanding is from speaking with the Director, because LYNX received stimulus funding there should be no cuts this year. However, 2013 is a pivotal year because, that is when the stimulus funding will run out. If property taxes continue to decrease, this could be problematic, as most of the LYNX funding comes from the local government. So, we really have to find a dedicated funding source for LYNX. I was tasked with serving on the Public Transit Task Force established for the Metro Plan. Across the four-county corridor we will have Sun Rail and we are exploring a variety of options to identify a dedicated public funding source that will also include LYNX.
WONO: You have been a strong advocate for minority and women-owned businesses. How effective has the Orange County M/WBE Ordinance been and has the Great Recession impacted its effectiveness and enforcement?
Tiffany Moore Russell: It has been great for those in a position to take advantage of it. I was instrumental in hiring a new manager for the M/WBE office who has a background in understanding opportunities for minorities. He understands the Ordinance and so he had been helpful in cleaning up that office, despite some administrative challenges. Based on the feed back I have received, the consensus from the community is he has been great and the office has been running better. More minorities are getting opportunities, but given the tough economy, the argument is whether one goes with the more cost effective option or whether we look for diversity. I will give you an example: four years ago where we would normally have four or five applicants, now we are seeing 50 applicants bidding on a single contract. Everyone is competing for the government’s money, and so it is making it harder for minority-owned businesses. You have some companies that are low-balling, offering cheaper rates so that they can be awarded the contract. That hurts our minority-owned businesses because, many of them cannot reduce costs, in view of their small size. The economy has truly made it more competitive as, more people are looking for contracts now. When we did the RFP there were over 100 companies at the town hall meeting in Pine Hills; that has never happened before. Everyone is struggling for work; even the big companies are hungry. So, when you have a three or five-member firm competing against a 50-member firm, it makes it very difficult for the minority company. I continue to advocate and have started doing mini receptions—getting our minority companies before the faces of the large companies. You can’t legislate relationships and that’s what business is all about. I have also been drawing on other contacts and recommending minority businesses, but this is outside of the procurement process.
WONO: You voted against the Venues project which surprised everyone. Why did you take this stand? Do you feel vindicated by that decision now that many say the Venues project is a failure, when measured against the community mission?
Tiffany Moore Russell: I voted against it for several reasons. First, the Venues project was seeking funds primarily from the Tourist Development Tax which is a tax collected off our hotel beds. There is legislation that governs what those funds can be used for. They can be used for the arts, capital projects to support tourism, sports or any projects that will support tourism in the area. So, I had a problem spending tourist dollars on an arena that will not drive people to stay in our hotel beds. People don’t come to Orlando and stay two or three days to go to a Magic game. Sure, we may get the All Stars, but that’s once every ten years. But, there were several different layers to that issue. I thought, if we are going to spend the money let’s focus on the Citrus Bowl first, because that’s the only one of the facilities that actually puts people in hotel beds. You have the Classic and the two Bowl games, the WWE, the DMX trucks and those sorts of events. People come in from around the U.S. and those events drive tourism.
I was also against constructing a new building, in this case an arena and I felt if it was to go forward it should be put near the Convention Center on International Drive, as experience shows that more conventions would be attracted, if the two facilities were connected. I supported the Citrus Bowl as there is an existing structure and for the reasons I have already outlined. I am not against sports, I am a huge sports fan. Similarly, I have nothing against art. But the truth is, we currently have a Citrus Bowl which is not top quality nor for that matter, the equipment.
I also had a problem with the deal because a substantial amount of the Community Redevelopment Act (CRA) funds for Parramore was going to be supporting the performing arts venue and the question I always had was whether there would be monies left for real redevelopment of Parramore. And I knew there wouldn’t be. Once you commit the money from the CRA for 20-30 years, there is no money left for real investment. I didn’t think that an arena would redevelop the community. There was no evidence that arenas had done so in other cities. It didn’t happen with the existing arena. Our track record was not good. I was concerned that we not repeat the mistakes of past years. I was fighting to put some language into the local agreement to make sure that minorities got something out of it, not merely suggested, but the city wasn’t willing to put that in the deal. As a lawyer, I believe everything has to be in writing; promises don’t mean anything if they are not in writing. At least, if it is written into the agreement you can withhold payment if its not done right. I also recognized that the city and the CRA couldn’t afford it. We were already experiencing tough economic times and we couldn’t afford to spend that much money for three large buildings.
There were other serious issues, particularly in the downtown Parramore area. Also, we have some major deficiencies in our infrastructure for which we could have used that money. For example, we have to maintain our Convention Center as a top quality building. I didn’t see the Venues project as providing a good return on our money and so, I voted no. It was not popular, but I didn’t think it was the right thing to do, nor was it the right time. I could have supported it if the Citrus Bowl was first and then perhaps the arena on I-Drive. I thought the Orlando Magic should have paid more for the arena as they were the only ones who would get something at the end of the day. The arena had the least support; most of the community’s support was for the arts. So, three years later, not that I feel vindicated, but it does confirm what I was saying at the time was correct. I was not being single minded or trying to undermine the community, rather, I had the community’s interest at heart. I try to think things through and see what is best down the road, not what feels good at the moment.
WONO: Will the Clean Sweep Program that you have spearheaded become a permanent fixture in Pine Hills and other parts of District 6? It just seems that the medians on the west side look a little bit worse than those on the east side. Are you satisfied with how the program has worked and what can be done differently to improve its success?
Tiffany Moore Russell: That is actually a good question because I have learned a huge lesson. Oftentimes, when you are running for office you make promises and then in office you learn some things. When I was running, I wondered why Apopka north of Route 50 didn’t look the same as Apopka running south of 50. Well, when I got into office I learned that when south of Route 50 was developed, a special tax was created for the area’s maintenance. Residents pay a larger tax increment for their lawn service. If they were receiving the regular county service they would not have the type of manicured lawns and right-of-ways that they do. The Clean Sweep Program will continue to go on—each commissioner gets two clean sweeps a year and we will continue to move them around. Pine Hills is so big, it encompasses a lot of communities and our goal is to continue to teach residents how to continue to keep it going once we leave. In view of the tight budget, it is very difficult to invest in the right-of-ways, lawn maintenance and so forth. We don’t have the resources to cut the grass every week, but it is every six weeks. I believe we should have corporations sponsor our right-of-ways as a means of advertising, as they do in Gainesville. For example, a corporation will adopt Pine Hills and pay to maintain Pine Hills road and that company will get the signage, publicity and coverage. I think we will have to move to those kinds of programs so that our neighborhoods don’t continue to become blighted. I will be working on getting companies to adopt right-of-ways to keep them attractive. It is going to be tough for governments to do what more affluent communities do. What has happened is, when these newer communities were built, a little extra in taxes was included. We didn’t do that when we built Pine Hills and Holden Heights. So, now the question is, how do we maintain those communities, without going back and taxing the residents?
WONO: You launched a Community Gardening Initiative, how successful has that been? You are also promoting healthy living for seniors, how is that going?
Tiffany Moore Russell: The seniors in Pine Hills are awesome. I do love them dearly. They are exercising, fit and fabulous and I am very proud of them. My goal is to move them to Barnett Park, get more seniors and have more space to grow.
My last update on the garden is, the paperwork is being prepared, because Pine Hills is one of the targeted sites for a garden. I hope it would be able to create income for the community through the planting and sale of vegetables. Also, my expectation is that residents will use the vegetables and learn how to grow their own food. Hopefully, we can involve our youths so that they can better understand gardening, the environment and healthy living. This is what I would like to see happen, eventually. We are still working with our horticulture department to find the right spot, get the sprinkler system set up, because we want it to be a very beautiful garden. So, we are working on the logistics of the garden. I think it is going to be great because people will be invested in their community.
WONO: Commissioner, you have surrounded yourself with strong women, like Mable Butler. Are there other accomplished women that you look to for counseling, advise and if so? If so, who are they?
Tiffany Moore Russell: I look to Congresswoman Brown, especially when it comes to transportation initiatives. She has been very helpful in assisting me in the application of several grants, for example, the pedestrian bridge. I also go to my mother, she is my barometer for what is right. She is not politically astute, but she is a good sounding board for what is right and what makes sense. Also, my sister who is a contractor, she helps me gauge what small businesses are going through, where the real challenges are and what hurdles are being faced. Until you to know someone in the situation, it is really easy to get caught up in the politics of things. So, those are some of the people that I go to for advice, to help me determine if I am on the right path and to keep me grounded and on track.
WONO: As you seek re-election to continue to represent District 6, do you have any opponents?
Tiffany Moore Russell: Yes, I have two opponents right now qualifying as of June 18. They are, David Rucker and Bruce Antone.
WONO: If re-elected what would be your four or five top priorities for District 6?
Tiffany Moore Russell: To continue the efforts of the Pine Hills Task Force to make sure we have a plan and identify funding so it can be implemented. Another priority would be to continue to enhance the police presence in the Pine Hills area, making the community safer for all its residents. Also, I want to target Holden Heights for redevelopment. Holden Heights and the Oak Ridge area are two communities I think are fairly quiet. I want to attract at least two businesses to those areas. I wish to continue neighborhood preservation to the point where we could attach a neighborhood to a corporate partner, that would adopt that community. Lastly, at the end of 2009 I was successful in getting funding for a cricket field to be built in Pine Hills. So, I hope to get that done, and to see a vibrant facility and active sports going on in the community.
WONO: Is the cricket field at Barnett Park?
Tiffany Moore Russell: No, it is going to be at the Silver Star Park–Apopka and Silver Star. When the Dr. Phillips community did not want their Magic Gym, it was being moved to Winter Garden, but you can’t use Park Impact Funds for a facility in the city. So, there was this extra $600,000 which was going to be put into a land banking program to purchase lands for future parks. But, the Caribbean community had been lobbying hard for their own field, as they had to travel from place to place to play cricket. I knew one of our hurdles was the operations and maintenance cost and if we were able to attach the field to an existing facility, it will be less to maintain. So, the day that we were going to discuss shifting the funds, I moved a motion to take the money and build the cricket field. With the support of Commissioner Brummer and two other commissioners, we were able to get the money. The cricket field will have bleacher stands and will be constructed in accordance with the standards of the sport. Hopefully, within the next two years it will be constructed and I want to see it active and in use. It will be a great venue for the Caribbean community because they are so proud of that sport. District 6 is so diverse and I don’t want residents to think we only have football or basketball. We also have Cricket and Lacrosse and other sports. And I trust that the cricket field will be a great symbol for the Caribbean community, demonstrating that we embrace their sport and are willing to invest in their hobbies.
WONO: How is your campaign going and are you concerned about your opponents? Will we be seeing Tiffany Moore Russell re-elected for a second term to the Orange County Commission?
Tiffany Moore Russell: You will see Tiffany Moore Russell re-elected for a second term. The campaign is going well. I am raising money and have gotten a lot of support. I am not as concerned about my opponents, but I don’t take anyone for granted. I don’t take the residents for granted. I don’t assume anything, so I am out campaigning very hard. I’ve walked and collected signed petitions. I was the only candidate to qualify by the petition method and I started that in January. So, I am proud of that because most incumbents just write a check. I didn’t want to write the check. I had the money, but I wanted to go out and ask the voters to fill out a petition to help me get on the ballot. I will continue to walk and knock on doors and get the support of the residents. I believe I will be reelected. But, I do believe you have to work hard and not take anything for granted. So, I don’t assume anything with my opponents, but I will take my message to the voters and I believe they will re-elect me. I believe I have done a good job, I have represented them well, and they will send me back to serve another four years.
WONO: Thank you, Commissioner.
Tiffany Moore Russell: Thank you, too.
More About Tiffany Moore Russell
Commissioner Tiffany Moore Russell is a native of Orlando, Florida. A product of Orange County’s public school system, Commissioner Moore Russell is an alumna of Dr. Phillips High School. Upon graduating from high school she went on to receive her BA in Political Science from the University of South Florida and a Juris Doctorate from Florida State University College of Law.
She was elected to the Orange County Commission to represent District 6 in November of 2006. She made history through becoming the youngest County Commissioner that has ever been elected to serve on the Orange County Commission in charge of a budget exceeding $5 billion and more than 8000 employees. Commissioner Moore Russell is committed to remaining accountable and accessible to each and every constituent, increasing recreational and career opportunities for the area youth, creating stable and viable neighborhoods, and strengthening Orange County’s economy by increasing the availability of jobs and minority business opportunities.
Commissioner Moore Russell has been a community advocate for many years, both as an elected official and a private citizen. As a lay person she served on the Orange County Community Action Board, where she was elected Chairman and Vice Chairman while also accepting volunteer appointments to both the Orange County Board of Zoning and Adjustments and the Orange County Citizens Review Board. As a Commissioner, she’s gained additional experience through providing service on boards such as Orange County’s Commission on Aging; Value Adjustment Board; Youth and Family Service Board; OBT Development Board; the Electoral Canvassing Board; METROPLAN; and the Florida Association of Counties.
Her love for this community is evident through her desire to initiate the following community programs: Family Hope Day– a program designed to promote community partnerships, neighborhood unity, and a safer, more caring community for the residents of the Washington Park neighborhood; Annual Summer Safety Event– established to prepare students for a safe, positive, and productive summer vacation; Pine Hills Clean Sweep– a project organized to remove debris and trash from the streets in an effort to make the neighborhood a better place to live; Commissioner’s W/MBE Townhall Meetings– citizen driven forums held to allow local business owners to discuss one-on-one topics of concern as it relates to doing business in Orange County; E-Zone Workshop– a community business workshop designed to highlight tax incentive programs offered through Orange County; and “School Days Are Here Again” Back to School Rally– hosted to provide students with valuable resources needed to be successful in the upcoming school year.
Commissioner Moore Russell is a member of the Florida Bar, the Virgil Hawkins Chapter of the National Bar Association, the Paul C. Perkins Bar Association, the Central Florida Women’s Lawyer Association, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., Psi Theta Omega Chapter and the Life Center Church of Eatonville, Florida. As a member of the Life Center Church, she is active in the Praise Dance Ministry. In addition to serving on the commission she is an Associate Counsel with the Law Offices of John DiMasi. Commissioner Russell is married to Anthony K. Russell, Jr and they are the proud parents of Anthony K. Russell, III.
Contact Commissioner Tiffany Moore Russell
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