LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — At the first meeting of Walt Disney World’s private government since Florida Gov. Officials said that Ron DeSantis had signed into law the measure to disband it. However, some ripple effects are already being felt.
The administrator of the government, called the Reedy Creek Improvement District, said the expansion of a solar power project could be delayed because of financing challenges linked to the legislation, and the union for the district’s firefighters expressed concerns about what the dissolution might mean for members’ lifetime benefits.
After the meeting, Donald Greer, who has been a member of Reedy Creek’s board of supervisors since 1975, said the board could not provide clear answers on those issues because “we don’t know where we are going.”
“The district may have a response as soon as we know what it means, but I don’t know if anybody knows what it means. Greer stated that he doesn’t believe anyone can decipher it.
The dissolution measure was passed quickly in the Republican-controlled statehouse without public study of its impact and was hastily signed into law by DeSantis. The move came in a GOP push to punish Disney over its opposition to another new law barring instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in early grade school, which critics call “Don’t Say Gay.”
For the governor, the feud was the latest front in a culture war he has waged over policies involving race, gender and the coronavirus, battles DeSantis has harnessed to make himself one of the most popular Republicans in the country and a likely 2024 presidential candidate.
A day before DeSantis signed into law the bill, the Reedy Creek Improvement District issued a statement to investors stating that it will continue with its financial operations. According to the district, Florida cannot limit or modify the ability of the district to collect taxes and fulfill bond obligations under its agreement.
Critics of the dissolution bill have warned that taxpayers in neighboring counties could end up shouldering about $1 billion in debts from the district. DeSantis dismissed these concerns, and stated that additional legislation will be written to address the issue of special districts within the state.
At the Reedy Creek meeting Wednesday, district administrator John Classe said a developer has experienced challenges financing a planned expansion of a solar power program, meaning it could be delayed.
Jon Shirey, the head of the union for Reedy Creek’s firefighters, who make up around half of the private government’s 400 employees, asked supervisors to give his members reassurances that their jobs and benefits would be preserved since they have been kept in the dark about what the effect is going to be. He said that firefighters and retirees are concerned about losing their guaranteed life-long health insurance.
“We have been told to stay quiet, don’t talk to the media, don’t engage with current events,” Shirey told supervisors. We were told that the leaders of the district would tell the story. The message will come from them. I ask you, ‘What is that message?'”
The supervisors did not respond, and in fact spent little time devoted to the legislation which poses an existential threat to the 55-year-old Reedy Creek Improvement District. Classe told supervisors its workers would continue to function with the same “high standards and professionalism they always have done as we learn what this legally means.”
Backers of the dissolution of Reedy Creek have argued it removes an unfair advantage the entertainment giant has over other theme parks, including allowing it to issue bonds and set its own zoning standards.
At an event Monday, the governor assured a cheering crowd that Disney’s bond debts won’t be dumped on taxpayers.
“Under no circumstances will Disney be able to not pay its debts, we will make sure of that,” DeSantis said.
Credit rating agency Fitch Ratings has put Reedy Creek on a “negative watch” list, indicating that the private government’s ratings could stay the same or potentially be downgraded. Reedy Creek would be more challenged borrowing if the rating agency Fitch Ratings downgraded it.
Another ratings agency, S&P Global Ratings, said that among the questions left unanswered by the new law was whether Reedy Creek would reconstitute after its dissolved next year, how utility operations and debt would be transferred to the neighboring governments if it came to that and how the neighboring governments would raise taxes to secure Reedy Creek’s debt.
Under the law, Reedy Creek would expire by June 2023. Reedy Creek officials have not provided any public information about the law. Shirey said that they are afraid “the governor would find their statements unfriendly” and this could complicate matters. Shirey also stated that he believes lawmakers will protect the rights of first responders in the district.
“We have 14 months, and a lot can change between now and then,” Shirey said.
Izaguirre reported from Tallahassee, Florida
Get news delivered to your inbox each morning.