By Reggie Connell/Managing Editor of The Apopka Voice
An open letter to: Mayor Bryan Nelson, City Commissioners Doug Bankson, Kyle Becker, Alice Nolan, and Alexander H. Smith, City Administrator Edward Bass, and Finance Director Jamie Roberson.
Dear City Council, Mr. Bass, and Ms. Roberson,
It’s been about a week since you voted unanimously to adopt a proposed millage rate and budget for the fiscal year 2018-19, and about a week away from your final hearing to make it official. I thought this middle ground between votes would be a good time to express my thoughts and concerns.
First off, congratulations to you all. You came together with limited time and balanced a $114.5-million budget that had a lot of moving parts and prickly issues. That’s not an easy feat. Five of you are new to your roles (at least in Apopka), yet you worked well together and completed your mission on time and on balance.
Those of you who ran for office in 2018 made budget management, fiscal responsibility, and increasing the reserves in the general fund your core issues. And this budget seems to reflect those ideals. You cut an estimated $5-6 million from original requests by department heads, which represents approximately 10% of what was in the first draft, and you approved only four out of 50 requests for new hires.
By most measurements, this is as tight as you can take this budget without a loss of service. You even gave back a quarter-mill of revenue (an estimated $750,000) from an already-voted-on half-mill increase to keep Apopka’s tax rate the lowest in the area while still balancing the budget.
But in doing so, I think you may have left some important areas unfunded or underfunded.
At the July 5th budget meeting/workshop, Mayor Nelson made the proposal for a quarter-mill increase to the tax rate to balance the budget. Commissioner Becker not only agreed but made the proposal to make it a half-mill increase instead.
“Because we can come back later and go down on the millage rate, we should do a half- mill,” Becker told the Council and audience in attendance. “The quarter-mill doesn’t even get us to a balance. If that’s the philosophy, this allows us the opportunity to potentially put economic development back into play, and we can start coming up with the sizzle-thing within our city outside of just great services. It also allows us the opportunity to start putting money back into the reserve balance which gets us back to a level playing field.”
As it turns out, through an inter-local agreement to take over the territory of Orange County Fire Station 29, and budget creativity by Mr. Bass and Ms. Robison, Apopka was able to balance the budget with only a quarter-mill increase, but the spirit of Commissioner Becker’s premise still stands.
In order to compete with local municipalities, Apopka needs an economic development department.
Take a look at the websites of cities that border Apopka, and you will see at least the appearance of the sizzle that Commissioner Becker is describing. And most all of them have either an Economic Development Director, Manager, or Department, and some have budgeted between $360,000-$400,000 for the advancement of economic development in their municipality.
Apopka may be the second largest city in Orange County, and the fastest growing, but most cities around it are also growing rapidly and competing for economic commerce – both to bring new business to its community and to keep the existing businesses it has.
Economic development directors have a strategic focus. They are pro-active. They study market trends and apply their expert judgment to opportunities and threats facing the local economy. And while the Apopka Area Chamber of Commerce and the UCF Apopka Business Incubator are key components to economic development in Apopka, someone who is specifically given the job to analyze and respond to the economic well-being of the community can work with them, and specifically harness the potential of every component in Apopka’s arsenal to keep pace with the tremendous growth it is experiencing. As Commissioner Becker said, ‘it puts Apopka on a level playing field to compete for the types of businesses that residents have long asked for in its community.’
And speaking of growth…
Among the requested personnel not on this budget are four additional officers for the Apopka Police Department. And considering four current officers transferred to the state-mandated School Resource Officer program, the APD is essentially losing four officers that were patrolling the streets of Apopka.
The APD is currently below the state average of 2.5 officers per 1,000 of the city’s population. They are also near the bottom of officers per square mile of comparable cities on the I-4 corridor. The APD is at 3.1-3.2 officers per square mile, while in comparison Orlando is at 6.5.
With the hiring of four additional officers, the APD would have maintained its level per 1,000 (from 2.17 to 2.16). Without the addition, it drops to 2.09.
It’s great that you funded those four SRO officers from this budget, but in doing so you did not replace the vacancy that has essentially occurred by moving them to their new roles at the schools. And while Apopka Police Chief Michael McKinley assured the City Council that the APD can maintain the public safety level it had previously, it’s still a troubling trajectory to put them on given the population growth in Apopka.
It seems likely that if asked, the will of the people would have been to keep the extra quarter-mill increase (which would amount to less than $100 per year for most Apopka residents), and fund those extra four police officers in order to keep up with the population growth and to limit the stress of losing those four officers moving from patrol to the SRO program. After all, it had already been voted on, reported on, debated on social media, and accepted by the community before it was cut.
It was clear from the elections that Apopka put a premium on budget management, general fund reserves, and removing the red light camera program. You were able to deliver on those promises. It also appears that you heard the concerns of the Apopka employees and restored merit pay-based raises back to its previous levels, which I’m sure was no easy task without the extra quarter-mill increase.
And in all fairness, you told the Apopka community that spending in FY2018-19 would be bare-bones, but that it would pave the way for less austere budgets in the future. But you also made priorities of community safety and economic development at the conclusion of your letter to the citizens of Apopka which is at the front of the budget.
There is indeed a time to save money, cut expenses and tighten a community’s belt, but at a time of unbridled growth in so many areas of Apopka, perhaps investing in economic development, and keeping the police department up to the growth pace of its community might be worth that quarter-mill increase. Please keep these factors in mind for the upcoming vote, and/or during the 2019-20 budget cycle.
Again, thank you for your efforts and accomplishments on the FY2018-19 budget. You deserve a round of applause from the Apopka community.