Council’s unanimous consensus unravels in heated debate
Creating the 2016-17 City of Apopka Budget is a grind. It’s an arduous marathon that starts in March and concludes in October. The City Council worked through 700-plus pages on five workshop meetings that were estimated to have taken 20-plus hours.
There was contention and disagreement at certain moments within the workshops, but by its conclusion on August 23rd, there was a 5-0 consensus on a 726-page proposed budget, which totals just over $104 million and includes a millage rate increase to 3.7876 and $1.7 million taken from reserves in order to balance the budget.
But at yesterday’s first City Council meeting that included public comments, that 5-0 consensus evaporated, and actually unraveled into a contentious debate over millage rates and spending.
After a short presentation by Finance Director Pamela Barclay, the Council took comments from the public before Commissioner Billie Dean shocked the room with a plan to cut spending and keep the millage rate at its 2015-16 level of 3.0916.
“I did some research on the subject, and I think we can keep the millage at the rate it was last year if we cut back on some things,” he said. “I don’t want any projects taken out of the budget, but I feel that the Gospel Fest could be reduced by $50,000, The Old Florida Festival $250,425, food and wine $30,000. These are things I feel could be cut back on and save the taxpayers a lot of money without raising the millage. Recreation $250,000, request capital $145,000.”
Dean also proposed cutting $40,000 for the Fourth of July event, and $250,000 for the splash pad project.
“That would make a total savings of $1,459,556,” Dean added. “If the millage rate is increased we will save $1,263,336.”I don’t want to see any of the projects eliminated, but we need to re-think the amount that’s been specified this year.”
There was a brief pause before Barclay asked Dean to drill-down on his proposed cuts.
“What specifically do you want to cut?” She asked. “What aspect of the recreation budget? We can’t just cut or reduce $250,000 without knowing what to cut.”
“Well, we’re charging each one of the Little League, Pop Warner and Soccer (leagues) I feel too much to the taxpayers and if we got a list of over-spending for these projects, we wouldn’t have to charge for use of the fields.”
City Administrator Glenn Irby re-directed the discussion back to the raw numbers of Dean’s proposed cuts.
“We still can’t get to the $1.2, 1.3 million that you said these numbers add up to,” he said. “We’re getting to about $580,000-600,000… about half. To reduce the millage a half-mill, we need to come up with $1,263,336 to cut. The way the budget is predicated is on specifics. So to come in and say ‘we want to cut $600,000, $1.2 million…she’s (Barclay) correct, we have to know specifically where that’s coming from.”
“Are we going into reserves to balance the budget for next year?” Dean asked.
“Yes sir,” said Irby.
“This is what I’m trying to avoid…dipping into the reserves,” said Dean.
“But if you reduce the millage, you dip into the reserves even more,” said Barclay.
Using the Gospel Fest as an example, Dean explained there is a possibility that local churches would want to get involved.
“We could probably use churches in this vicinity to do exactly what we’re trying to budget thousands of dollars for, and it wouldn’t cost the taxpayers anything. ”
Commissioner Doug Bankson entered the discussion, surprised these costs were not already cut.
“If I can go ahead and add to that… I actually thought that’s what we were doing. I thought we had already cut that, along with the Wine Festival and those other things in order to re-focus how we approach that in the future… and because we have so many expenditures going out I thought we were pulling back.”
Commissioner Kyle Becker entered the discussion referring to the past budget workshops where these issues were discussed.
“I think we reduced some of these costs through the workshop sessions, but I think all of us up here know it was abundantly clear we want to reduce the amount we take from reserves and we don’t want to raise the millage rate unless it’s absolutely necessary,” he said. “Within the course of the workshops, I don’t think we were getting to a spot where we could cover the staffing positions, vehicle fleets, police and fire expansions without having to do those two things. And I agree with you if you want to try and save money on some of those festivals and recreation-type things, but I think we should budget for it, and then we try to spend less.”
“I’ve actually gone to the church community and talked with them about ways we can still do it (Gospel Fest) because I think it’s a fantastic idea,” said Bankson. “Everything that we’ve looked at, because there aren’t any of these things that I would like to see go away for their own sake, but it’s how we approach them. My understanding was that all of the increase would go back in to the reserves so that we weren’t taking them out of the reserves and it doesn’t look like that’s happening here so that’s my concern.”
Mayor Joe Kilsheimer entered the discussion with his recollection of those workshop deliberations.
“I think what we said at the final workshop is that we were reducing the reliance of reserves, but it was also clear in order to balance the budget as proposed that we would have to use some reserves.”
“That wasn’t my understanding,” said Bankson.
Kilsheimer continued after a graphic of the past 10 years of reserves in the City of Apopka was projected on the screen for the attendees at the meeting to view.
“The reserves that we are proposing are not historical highs or lows. They’re right in the middle of where the City of Apopka has been over the last 10 years. And over the last two years, we have put money back into reserve. So given the fact that we have to build a fire station, hire 18 new firefighters, build a new communications tower on the north side of town so we can have EMS services and do all of the things that we need to do from a public safety standpoint… and also given the notion that one of the things that cities do is provide for the quality of life in their community, which includes festivals, which allows Apopka to market itself not only to Apopka, but to the rest of Central Florida. It does cost money to put on a festival, but I don’t see the justification for trying to gut the money that we’re talking about spending on festivals because if you do that you reduce the quality of life in the community and if you cut the money for the festivals, you essentially kill the festival.”
Bankson considered future expenditures as too potentially high to risk so much quality of life spending.
“When I’m looking at the budget and I’m looking at the future of what we’re going to have to do and obviously we all know we’ve had some real heavy safety issues we’ve had to address and although our millage rate has been low…it sunk way back down, but we had to cut some necessary services and as we found out in these budget workshops, things were put off that needed to be purchased that now if we don’t we’re really getting behind… so now we’re trying to balance those things but now my concern is when we initially started with the budget it was $2.6 million we were dipping into reserves, and so we went through all of the workshops and my understanding…whether it was a misunderstanding or not was that the $1.96 million if we increased the millage rate would go back to reserves. And if I’m reading the numbers correct we’re still going to spend $1.7 million. My concern is we’re right at the 21.6-21.7% on our unrestricted reserves. So basically where my mindset was when we finished our workshops was we’re biting the bullet, but that all of that would go back to reserves… so my expectation was that we would not still be at 21.7%.
“Even with the reserves that we propose, we’re still five percentage points above the benchmark,” said Kilsheimer.
“And that is my other contention, that our benchmark was at 20…”
“No Doug,” Kilsheimer said.
“Let me finish my sentence,” Bankson said.
“Let me just make my point,” Kilsheimer said. “The benchmark is 16%. Two months worth of spending. So 21% is five points more than 16.”
“Okay, now let me finish. It said in our proposed budget that it was 20, and that it was explained… and yes I was going to say that 16.7% is our benchmark, however in the same paragraph it says that’s a baseline, and then you add in other factors such as do you live in a storm area. I think there are some things we need to take a look at and say this is the baseline, but maybe we should add some cushion there. I just think it would be wise.”
Becker pointed out that a budget does not necessarily reflect actual spending.
“We do have the potential to do better than what we budget for, and that’s what I will challenge staff to do. I feel fully comfortable after going hours on end through this budget process, reading all 700-plus pages of this budget. And I feel comfortable with this millage rate, and I feel comfortable that we are lower than most municipalities around us.”
After discussion concluded, Kilsheimer called for a vote, which went 3-2 in favor of a millage rate of 3.7876 with Becker, Kilsheimer, and Velazquez voting in favor, while Bankson and Dean voted against it.
There were more public comments in regards to approving the proposed budget and then more comments by the Council.
Becker picked up the budget notebook and showed it to the audience.
“Pretty thick huh? We’ve gone through ever single word of this budget. Every single page of this budget…through workshops. We’ve ironed out and had conversations about every single line of this book. Is it perfect? Absolutely not. Are there places we can trim the fat? Certainly. And we had those conversations…every single one of us up here during those five workshops. I think every one of us up here is busting their humps to be fiscally responsible for the City of Apopka.”
Commissioner Diane Velazquez remained relatively quiet during the discussions and the first vote, but before the final vote of the evening, she expressed her feelings toward the surprising turn of events.
“I just wanted to add that I’m disappointed with the two commissioners who voted no, because we spent five workshops with 4-5 hours on each and we literally went page-by-page and expense-by-expense. So much time was dedicated to this not just by us but by staff… and here we are at a 3-2 vote.”
“Yes we all did work real hard and I feel like we did work together, but remember during those meetings not everything was agreed on,” said Bankson. “There was consensus and that’s the way we have to move – by consensus.”
“But from the last workshop until today you had an opportunity to go to Glenn (City Administrator Irby) and say ‘can we tweak this?’ There was an opportunity for that and for us to come and ask the public to speak and all of a sudden we have two commissioners who say ‘let’s cut all these things out’. We don’t have the time to do what you’re asking.”
Dean shot back at Velazquez.
“I reserve the right to say what I want and vote how I want to vote,” he said.
“You do,” Velazquez said. “I never said you can’t.”
Kilsheimer finally gaveled the heated discussion to a close and called for a vote – which ended 3-2 in favor of the budget with Becker, Kilsheimer and Velazquez voting in favor while Bankson and Dean voted against.
The final act of this Shakespearean drama will be on September 28th at 5:05PM in the City Council Chambers.