Opinion/Analysis

By Reggie Connell/Managing Editor of The Apopka Voice

There are no bad guys in this story.

 I know in today’s political climate, there is a tendency to villainize the other side rather than debate the merits of an issue. If somehow you don’t believe me or don’t accept that premise, take a quick look at social media.

 Go ahead, I’ll wait…

 It won’t take you long to find an article that proves my case. It’s pervasive at a national, state and local level and we read about it, listen to it, and see it on cable news every day.

In many ways, it’s the biggest issue to overcome when facing tough decisions.

So let me warn you up front that in this article there are two sides, both with good points and they make their case well. There are no easy answers. It’s not as simple as looking to your ideological left or right, seeking like-minded people, agreeing with them and adding your opinion to the bottom of a Facebook post.

 There are no campaigns to win, or voters to please. There is simply an issue that needs a solution, and a hard decision to be made.

Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson and the entire City Council want to do what’s right for Apopka. So does City Administrator Edward Bass. Right now they believe that cutting the budget for the fiscal year 2018-19 is the best way to do what’s right for the city.

Bass estimates he trimmed $5-6 million from original requests by department heads, which represents approximately 10% of what was in the first draft. He also approved only four out of 50 requests for new hires.

Among the requested personnel not on this budget are four additional officers for the Apopka Police Department (APD). And considering four current officers are transferring to the state-mandated School Resource Officer program, the APD is essentially losing four officers.

The cuts also include rolling back merit pay raises for city employees from a maximum of 6% annually down to 3%.

Given the comprehensive belt-tightening nature of this budget, cutting merit pay seems like a reasonable plan of action, but before a final conclusion is drawn, officers of the APD delivered a strong message to the City Council at their Wednesday night meeting. Dozens of them, their families, and supporters dressed in black and white t-shirts and filled the Council chambers to voice their displeasure with the cut in merit pay.

 Sergeant Steve Harmon has been with the Apopka Police Department for 15 years. He is in charge of the Traffic Unit and won the 2017 Supervisor of the Year award. He is also on the multi-agency SWAT team, leads the APD’s Honor Guard Unit, and is also involved in many charitable events like Cystic Fibrosis, the Law Enforcement Torch Run, and Special Olympics. The word hero gets thrown around too much in today’s society, but by any measure, Harmon is a hero in this community.

He and two other members of the APD spoke against the merit pay cut to the City Council during the public comment portion of the meeting.

Sgt. Steve Harmon: “We’ve solved several accidents that we wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise because of the cameras. I’ve covered two fatal accidents that were caught by cameras. We wouldn’t have had that otherwise.”
  “We’re worried that if it gets moved to 3%, it will be hard to come back to 6%. We also don’t think that if the previous administration overspent, we should have to bear that burden. But I know you have to find it from somewhere. So let me give you my opinion as an APD traffic supervisor. Red light cameras are a good way to keep some income. Now I don’t want you to think we should run the cameras only because it makes income. I’m telling you it’s because of safety. I’ve been in the traffic division a little over a year and a half now, and I can tell you it’s a safety issue. We’ve solved several accidents that we wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise because of the cameras. I’ve covered two fatal accidents that were caught by cameras. We wouldn’t have had that otherwise. If you don’t think it’s a safety issue and you vote to get rid of them and your family member or someone you know gets hurt or killed at an intersection that used to have a red light camera, if you feel good about that, that’s okay, but I think they actually are a safety thing, not a money thing.”
It is estimated by Bass that the red light camera program would generate an additional $800,000-$900,000 to this budget cycle.

Nathan Tuck is also an officer with the APD who recently became a homeowner in the area. He worries that this cut might hurt his financial future.

 “In December my wife and I purchased a home in Apopka. We recognize the path of growth the city was on and we wanted to be a part of that. I also decided to apply with the Apopka Police Department. Prior to that, I worked for a neighboring jurisdiction for six years. I came here because not only did Apopka have a reputation for taking care of their employees as far as raises in retirement but I also wanted to work where I live. I took an $8,000 pay cut to come here because I recognize the raises were very generous but if these raise cuts go through then it will take my entire career to make up the pay cut.”

Sam Anderson was the third APD officer to speak, and he was perhaps the most moving.

 “The 3% merit may seem generous but here are some of the things we don’t get that the Apopka Police Department that most all of our competition does. No overtime until you reach 11 hours. No callout minimum. No court minimum. No shift differential. No dry-cleaning allowance. No field training incentive. No on-call pay. No collective bargaining and no unions, which is a great savings to the city. We had no cost-of-living adjustments since John Land was mayor. Apopka is the second largest city in Orange County and all of these factors combined would destroy our efforts to recruit and retain quality law enforcement officers the number of experienced officers who would leave will skyrocket. It would destroy our efforts to recruit and return obtain quality law enforcement officers. You’ll end up with young novice officers fresh out of the academy that wants to get their feet wet and move on. Service will suffer. Public Safety will suffer. Cutting your pay should be at the bottom of your list.”

Before he ended his comments, Anderson held up the door of an APD cruiser with several bullet holes shot into it to illustrate the sort of job a law enforcement officer does and why they deserve the pay they receive. Anderson was getting coffee at 7-11 when he broke up an armed robbery. The door tells the rest of the story.

After public comments, Commissioner Alice Nolan sympathized with the police officers and promised that merit pay will return to 6% by next year.

 “I really appreciate the APD coming out and voicing their opinions. I and all of the Council have spent many hours going over this budget and it is not our intention to have you carry it all on your backs. It’s on everybody’s backs. If we do raise the millage it’s on the backs of taxpayers. Not to be disrespectful but when we were going through this for four years and the overspending was happening, where was everybody? We could be cutting people, but were not. And I know for a fact it’s not my intention and I’m assuming it’s not anyone’s intention here to keep this at 3% because that is an incentive we’ve always had in Apopka. I know that we’re working every way to bring this up and hopefully, it won’t be this year, but it may, but it’s not our intentions to keep it that way. We do appreciate your work more than anything.”

  Later in the meeting, the millage rate that Nolan referred to was raised a 1/2-mill, which added approximately $1.4-$1.5 million to the budget that at the time had a shortfall of approximately $700,000. There was a discussion about what to do with the extra $700,000-$800,000, and merit pay was discussed as well as economic development.

 Commissioner Kyle Becker also pointed out that the budget is still in a proposal stage.

 “What you (the APD) do for the city is invaluable. The hazards of your job I can’t even fathom. That door is a pretty powerful statement. And the fact is the budget is not approved yet. We’ve had one workshop and that idea (merit pay cuts) was discussed. It has not been passed. We still have some things we need to do. There’s still an opportunity to have another workshop. We need to get that salary study because there is a possibility it will say the APD is behind the curve in terms of salary as it relates to other municipalities, and that opens the door to say we don’t make the cut. So I thank you for your comments, but the bow is not tied on the budget yet.”

So what is the right decision? What should the City Council do before the bow is tied?

According to spreadsheets provided by Nelson’s office that compare the APD to police departments across the state and in Central Florida, APD salary ranks vary depending on what you are comparing. In cities statewide with similar populations (the 10 cities directly below and above Apopka in population), the APD ranks 8th in starting salary (out of 21), 14th in Sergeant minimum salary, and 13th in Lieutenant minimum salary. In a Central Florida comparison of cities in Orange and Seminole Counties, Apopka ranks between 4th and 5th in those same three categories out of 17 cities. It’s not the same as a comprehensive salary study of the entire city staff, but it at least shows the APD is neither dramatically overpaid or underpaid.

There is no easy answer, and that’s why this City Council gets paid the big bucks. Only kidding, but you take my meaning.

It is the Council’s responsibility to make these difficult decisions, and sometimes it extends beyond the will of the people to what is right for Apopka. There is not a clear consensus among residents on this budget. Surely they want the APD and city employees to be paid fairly, but they also want a tight budget as referenced by 2018 election results.

But is there room in the increased millage rate and red light camera revenue to both balance the budget, keep the city employee’s merit pay, fund the four officers the APD is losing to the SRO program, and create an economic development department?

The increased millage rate added $1.4-$1.5 million to the budget, which cleared the shortfall, and left an additional $700,000-$800,000. An extra year of red light camera revenue would add an additional $800,000-$900,000 which would currently give the budget an overage of $1.5-$1.7 million. It wouldn’t be a popular decision, but the APD argues that RLC’s improve public safety, and the money it generates would also go back to improving public safety.

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 per square mile, while in comparison Orlando is at 6.5. With the hiring of four additional officers, the APD would nearly maintain its level per 1,000 (from 2.17 to 2.16). Without the addition, it drops to 2.09. Four additional officers would add approximately $500,000 to the 2018-19 budget.

It was also learned during the discussion that in order to return the merit pay for city workers to 6% for all city workers would cost approximately $750,000.

Funding both the addition of four new police officers and reinstating merit pay raises would cost $1.25 million, which leaves $250,000-$450,000 to fund an economic development initiative and add reserves back to the general fund.

Maybe this sounds a little too “tax-and-spend” for you. Maybe you are wondering if Senator Bernie Sanders wrote this article, but keep a few things in mind before you sign me up for the Green Party.

  1. There was already $5-6 million cut from this budget and only four out of 50 requests for new hires were granted.
  2. Adding four police officers only replaces the four officers moving off the streets of Apopka and into the classrooms of the SRO program.
  3. Giving employees back their 6% merit pay is not a raise, it’s simply returning their salaries back to their status quo.

Budget cuts are rarely popular. A tax increase was never going to be popular. Red light cameras in Apopka (which recently polled at 23.3% approval a couple weeks ago) are even less popular. And keeping employee salaries at the status quo, hiring four police officers, and creating an economic development department aren’t the most exciting initiatives to incentivize a millage rate increase, and to keep the RLC program alive another year, but it’s what is needed in Apopka in 2018.

This was never going to be a budget that made people happy. This was the budget that everyone was going to find something they didn’t like, but sometimes elected officials have to do what is unpopular. They have to do what’s best for their community.

Fully fund the merit pay raises for city employees at 6%. Hire four APD officers to take the place of the four moving to the SRO program, and invest in Apopka’s future by creating an economic development department.

It’s what’s best for Apopka.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Orange County Sheriff Demings is asking for more money for his budget department because he states that APD officers make higher wages than his officers. From the Orlando Sentinel.

  2. The City of Apopka owns a ton of property they aren’t doing anything with. They could sell a few and use that money to help balance the budget. There’s a large lot with an empty house on Park Ave. across from the middle school the city has owned for over a decade and it’s just sat there. The time to sell is now.

  3. They ought to sell off that oversized military vehicle, that enormous monster hummer- type vehicle that the APD has, and uses only for kiddy show and tell out at NWRC. That ought to bring in some needed money. What good is that thing? They only bought that thing for the cops to have a play toy, to joy ride around in and get eyeballed…..They could also stop having those “wraps” installed on the cop cars. How much do those graphic wraps cost? They look cool, but are not needed, as they are not necessary. Oh, let’s have our garbage trucks have wraps installed, on them, to look so cool! No, everyone would think the COA would have lost their mind, wouldn’t they? But it seems so generally accepted to have the cop cars in wraps. They aren’t needed, bottom line! Cut the fat!

  4. I would think that if there is any money left over in the budget, after raising the property taxes, and placing the budget burden upon the backs of us citizens, that they would replace the positions of the cops, the four that were moved to the schools, and off the street patrols, that they would hire those positions back, to fill the street patrols vacancies, before giving an extra 3 percent raise back to the employees. We the citizens, are having to be burdened with this 19.2 percent tax increase, and everyone has to share the burdens of the last administration’s over spending, and lost city reserves, at this time. As far as the police department, Mayor Nelson has given the police, the fire, and the EMTs his assurances, that they will not be laid off. I don’t hear that same assurance for the other general employees, but look at who was up in front of the council complaining……the police members!!! Plus, the public safety, first responders, have a much better pension plan than do the general employees, is my understanding. The first responders get all the glory and honor! And that one police officer, up before the council complaining, that left another job to come to APD, and took an 8,000 dollars pay cut, well that is your own doing, you left and applied for a job here, saying you wanted the job, when you applied, here. Sorry. And Mayor Nelson has taken the job as mayor for half of what Mayor K was paid, and you police members complain over 3 percent less….Mayor Nelson is taking 50 percent less than the previous mayor! So I will give him credit for that! I would have loved to have had a job, that paid well above minimum wages, paid sick time, vacation time, got regular raises annually, and to have had an employer pay for my expensive healthcare…..OMG, I would not have complained, period! I never had jobs like that, and believe me, there are a lot of our citizens here in this city who don’t have all those benefits either! Plus a pension when you retire! Plus assurances that you won’t be laid off! The police department should reconsider their complaining to the city council members, and I hate to tell you, getting more money won’t stop bad guys from shooting at your police cars. Jobs everywhere are dangerous too. It is the way the of the world in these times. Sorry.

  5. It seems to me that Mr. Bass cutting 5-6 million dollars from what was REQUESTED by dept heads is not cutting the budget…taking 5-6 million dollars off of last years budget IS cutting the budget….just reducing money for ‘wants’ is NOT cutting the spending….just my opinion

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