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Republicans' squabble with Disney ensnares two rural North Florida special taxing districts

The Suwannee River flowing through White Springs in southern Hamilton County, Florida. The Carillon bell tower at the Stephen Foster State Park is visible in the distance.
Hamilton County Tourist Development Council
The Suwannee River flowing through White Springs in southern Hamilton County, Florida. The Carillon bell tower at the Stephen Foster State Park is visible in the distance.

A political spat between Republican lawmakers and Disney has morphed into legislation that would have consequences hundreds of miles away from the company's Orlando-area theme parks.

The legislature is pushing a measure through a special lawmaking session this week that would require the dissolution of the Walt Disney Company's special independent district, the Reedy Creek Improvement District, on June 1, 2023. Disney collects fees from visitors to pay for a landfill, power plant, fire station, and roads across 26,000 acres of private property.

The state has more than 1,200 independent special districts, which are local governmental entities that may collect and spend revenues for a specific purpose within a particular geographic area. Local governments lack the ability to manage daily operations of special independent districts, unlike dependent special districts.

Gov. Ron DeSantis added the measure to the agenda on the first day of this week's special lawmaking session, giving the legislature little time to review it. He's expected to sign it. It comes after Disney publicly criticized a new state law that bans instruction on LGBTQ topics in K-3 classrooms, and prohibits lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in upper grades if they're not deemed age-appropriate.

The measure eliminating Disney's ability to independently manage the area surrounding its theme parks would also trigger the dissolution of five other special independent districts, including one in Hamilton County and another in Franklin County.

"These are small districts," said Sen. Loranne Ausley (D-Quincy), who represents both counties, speaking against the measure on Tuesday. "It’s going to require them to hire a lobbyist to come up here and to fight this battle. Is that really necessary? If we're trying to review this, isn't there another way to do this rather than dissolve them and then require them to take positive action to be reinstated?"

For the districts to continue serving residents, lawmakers must pass a local bill to re-establish them when they meet next spring.

On Wednesday, the measure passed in the Senate, 26-13. The vote was mostly along party lines, with Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) voting against the measure. The House will likely pass the bill on Thursday. And the governor is expected to sign it.

In Franklin County, the Eastpoint Water and Sewer District was established in 1967. It provides water and sewer services to roughly 2,100 residents who live in the unincorporated community of Eastpoint.

On Wednesday, Franklin County Attorney Michael Schuler told WFSU News that he was looking into the bill's legal ramifications and declined to comment further until he knew more about what they would mean for the county.

If the districts were to dissolve, the counties and cities that cover them would assume their debts and assets. The districts' ability to raise and spend revenue would also cease, though local governments could continue providing those services with funding from their own coffers.

A conceptual layout for a logistics park that is owned by the Hamilton County Development Authority.
Hamilton County Development Authority
A conceptual layout for a logistics park that is owned by the Hamilton County Development Authority.

The Hamilton County Development Authority is located along the Florida-Georgia state line. It was formed in 1960 to help local businesses grow and attract new investments and industry to the county. The authority awards grants for commercial beautification projects and helps businesses apply for state funding.

Most recently the authority awarded $250,000 to fund the expansion of a nursing home that employs about 100 people, said Chadd Mathis, economic development director for the authority.

The cash-strapped county has about 14,000 residents. “This county, being as rural as it is, it would really hurt it if there's no direct effort to assist in economic development, and a concerted effort,” Mathis said. “It's hard work to recruit to this type of demographic.”

The authority has about $4 million in the bank to fund job-creating projects, he said. Its funding comes from state phosphate severance tax revenues collected from a mining company that operates in the county. Mathis says the authority doesn't have any debt.

The authority also owns a nearly 60-acre logistics park, which recently received a $5.4 million state grant for infrastructure improvements. Gov. Ron DeSantis visited the county earlier this month to announce the funding.

Mathis says he's optimistic that the legislature will re-establish the district when lawmakers meet next spring.

“Our existence is critical to the future growth of Hamilton County,” he said. “I’m hopeful that we'll get re-established.”

Valerie Crowder is a freelance journalist based in Tallahassee, Fl. She's the former ATC host/government reporter for WFSU News. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.