Reedy Creek firefighters back plan for state control of Disney district
The district is slated for dissolution on June 1 under a Florida law DeSantis signed last year
By Katie Rice
ORLANDO — The union representing Disney World’s first responders says it supports a plan for the state to take control of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, as district officials publicly acknowledged the proposal by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature for the first time.
“Anything has got to be better than what we currently have,” Tim Stromsnes, communications director of the Reedy Creek Professional Firefighters Local 2117, said in an interview Monday.
A notice published on Osceola County’s website Friday said lawmakers are seeking to discuss “removing and revising powers of” the Reedy Creek Improvement District, Disney World’s self-governing special district, and “increasing state oversight, accountability, and transparency” during an upcoming legislative session.
The district is slated for dissolution June 1 under a law approved by the Legislature and signed by DeSantis in April. The law followed a dispute between DeSantis and Disney over what critics have dubbed the “don’t say gay” bill.
District spokeswoman Eryka Washington Perry forwarded an email that District Administrator John Classe sent to employees on Monday. In the message, Classe said district leadership anticipated Friday’s news as the first step in the process to reestablish Reedy Creek.
“It is very clear that there is legislative intent for the District to continue to do the great work you do every day,” Classe wrote. “As the legislative process continues to play out in the weeks/months ahead, it is imperative that we continue to provide excellence in our government services to the tens of thousands of visitors who come here daily.”
After DeSantis signed the law dissolving Reedy Creek in April, the first responders’ union said members were concerned about losing certain benefits. Union leadership has been in contact with DeSantis’ office in the months since, and Stromsnes said they are encouraged by the governor’s track record of taking care of Florida’s first responders.
DeSantis has assured the union’s workers that their jobs are safe, Stromsnes said, but some employees are still anxious as legislators determine the district’s future.
“We really hope that this new board will bring the morale up for Reedy Creek [and] will make us an elite emergency services department again,” Stromsnes said. “... We’ve got our faith in the governor that we’re going to be around and that it’s going to be a better place to work.”
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They contend Reedy Creek’s current Disney-appointed, five-member Board of Supervisors has little regard for the district’s nearly 400 employees, half of which are emergency services staff who respond to fires and medical emergencies across Disney’s roughly 40-square-mile resort.
In recent years, union members have raised alarms that understaffing, poor employee support and changes to the department’s mutual aid policies with neighboring fire departments are causing conditions that risk Disney employees’ and guests’ safety. Disney and Reedy Creek representatives have called their accusations untrue.
The union hopes a state-appointed board will not only increase accountability for district operations but also improve communication with employees as the firefighters and paramedics negotiate a new contract.
The union’s previous contract expired four years ago, President Jon Shirey said, and the group has declared an impasse in the negotiations after another unproductive meeting with district officials in December.
Washington Perry refuted the union’s claims about the district’s lack of communication, saying Reedy Creek’s monthly board meetings are open to the public. Reedy Creek also provided a contract proposal to union leaders during Dec. 9 negotiations but union members refused it and left the room, she said.
Representatives for Disney did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
DeSantis spokeswoman Taryn Fenske said Friday Disney’s “corporate kingdom has come to an end” as the state seeks to strip the company of its oversight of Reedy Creek. The district provides essential public services, like those of the fire department and utilities, and it can also issue tax-free bonds, levy taxes and oversee land use and environmental protections.
DeSantis feuded with The Walt Disney Co. in March over its opposition to the Parental Rights in Education bill, which prohibits discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in early-grade classrooms and restricts it as “age-appropriate” after the third grade.
DeSantis promised to “take care” of any resulting financial and operational issues arising from the district’s dissolution when he signed the April legislation.
The Disney first responders’ union voiced its support for DeSantis leading up to his November reelection.
The Reedy Creek Professional Firefighters appeared along with the Florida Professional Firefighters union at an endorsement event for DeSantis in July. There, Shirey called DeSantis “the most pro-first responder governor” he had seen and said the union was confident DeSantis would take care of Reedy Creek’s employees.
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