Decision Apopka 2018
Apopka City Commission Candidate Feature: Seat #2 Leroy Bell
Leroy Bell is a firebrand.
He is outspoken and candid. He shoots from the hip, speaks his mind and lets the chips fall where they may.
And chips often fall.
In the span of a four-minute public comment at a November 15th, 2017 City Council meeting, Bell had harsh words for Apopka Mayor Joe Kilsheimer, his wife, a city commissioner, the Apopka Police Department, the Apopka Fire Department, the Apopka Historical Society, and The Apopka Voice.
But now Bell would like to sit in Seat #2 of that same City Council.
Bell is running against incumbent City Commissioner Diane Velazquez, the commissioner he had harsh words for in November, as well as challengers Alice Nolan and Alicia Koutsoulieris. And although he is brash at times in his approach, his reason for running is clear in his mind.
“It came from an early age,” said Bell. I watched my father serving something bigger than himself. My father was a police officer, mechanic, pastor and community leader. I took that path. Growing up around people with a voice, and nobody listening to them. My father was the type of guy to give a voice to the voiceless. That’s what I want to be. I’m willing to serve for something bigger than myself like my father. I want to bring something to the City Council that hasn’t been there for years, and that’s the voice of the community. More than anything I want to bring the voiceless out of the shadows.”
Bell was once a supporter of the administration that he now criticizes. In his viewpoint, they have not been transparent, and they have not delivered on their promises.
“When this administration came in, you can say I was one of the people that drank the Kool-Aid. We took them out in the community, and they spoke with passion about things that need to be done in certain parts of the city that wasn’t done in other parts of the city. But once they were elected, they didn’t keep their word. I take people at their word, that’s why I’m high on integrity. I’ve helped plenty of people get elected. But once on the dais, they seem to be forgetful.”
Bell is clearly a proponent of integrity. In fact, he named it as the most significant issue facing Apopka going forward. He believes trust can shape a future of security and prosperity.
“Integrity is what keeps citizens engaged. Trust. When you gain trust, then different things begin to happen. You see the risk with first responders go down, especially with police officers. Pride comes up, cost and risks go down. When you gain trust, you get things done, and you get the things the people of this community want.”
Bell wants to spearhead the idea of Apopka’s citizens taking the reins of government and becoming a much more significant voice in the future.
“We the citizens have no say-so in this debacle they call a budget. We’re the citizens. We pay taxes. We should have a say-so in which direction the government is going or how fast it’s getting there. The City Council goes line by line through their budget. And then they pick this or that to add or cut… but if you had a citizen at the table they would be held accountable. It takes citizens to run the government. Not the politicians, the people.”
Despite a 2017-18 Fiscal Budget at just under $125 million, and reserves in the general fund, Bell sees the City of Apopka as out of money.
“We are in a deficit, not a surplus. We’re broke. They had to borrow money to balance the budget. Where is the money going? People say the budget is balanced. The mayor said at the State of the City address that we have reserves above 20%, but then we have commissioners that aren’t his rubber stamp say were at 18%, so they don’t know where the budget is at. I don’t know where the budget is at and half the folks in the community don’t know, so where’s the money? What is the actual bottom line of the budget right now?”
Bell would like to see a more substantial reserve, and his plan has community support according to his conversations with them.
“I think our reserves need to be at 25%, and plenty of people in the community agree with that. Most people keep a reserve of three house payments. That’s what the City should do. If the City doesn’t have the respect for the reserves to keep three months of expenses, it should explain why they need to put their hands on the reserves. You can’t just go using the reserves like it’s your slush fund. The roof at the amphitheater would’ve been fixed by now if they didn’t mess up the reserve.”
His approach to getting reserves to that amount is to go through the budget with a fine tooth comb and finding unnecessary spending.
“We would go through every line of the budget and streamline it. There are duplicate services we can end. We can cut the mayor’s salary in half. We can stop doing so many studies. If you meet with the community, you don’t have to hire a consulting firm.”
Like many others, Bell is in favor of slow, managed growth. And his thoughts on how to slow and control it begin from the ground up.
“We are a fast-growing community, and there’s nothing wrong with that. What I want is managed growth. Growing something that is simple into something complex. But before we grow, we need to get the roads fixed. We need to lay the foundation first. You can kill a town by bringing in too many businesses. What the people want is to manage the growth so that progress doesn’t outpace their salaries.”
And when it comes to jobs, salary, and training the next generation of workforce, Bell believes that lies in the current and future business owners of Apopka.
“You have to have good players in business, and we have great businesses in Apopka. So we need to partner with them. We need to get employment up. We start there. We get businesses to start pilot programs to hire and train the kids in their industry. That gives the next generation careers not just jobs. And when we do bring new business into Apopka, we make sure they are good stewards. Make sure they pay a living wage. Make sure they have healthcare for their employees. Then when homes start getting built, people can afford them.”
He also believes that building the roads of today’s Apopka will pay dividends in the future, and protect the budget reserves he wants to establish.
“Before we grow let’s get some sustainable infrastructure in place. This is where I can cut some more money in future budgets. You can put a Band-Aid on a problem instead of fixing it, and somewhere down the line, you’ve got to come back, and spend more of the reserve, because it wasn’t in the budget. It’s a lot of wasteful spending, and that’s where slowing growth and making sure you do it the right way is how you responsibly manage growth.”
Bell’s first crusade into local causes came over 20 years ago after he moved back to Apopka, and it would shape his attitude about community advocacy forever.
“In 1997 when I returned to Apopka, I noticed the dump was wide open right next to my mother’s house. You could see all the trash and birds and rodents… and there was a bad smell, and it seemed no one was doing anything about it. So my wife and I… and a local physician started fighting against the dump. Finally, we got them to close one of them early, but then we found out a lot is going on down there. Just in that area, you probably had 200 people die in the last 10 years from various respiratory causes. They have all kind of toxic places around there like medical waste, and you have the Apopka Wastewater Facility down there. It might be better, but sometimes people can’t come outside because of the smell. It’s sad to see you can’t do anything. Your hands are tied. So that’s where I got my passion. That’s where the spark plug comes from. In fights like that where people’s lives are on the line.”
And despite his passion for the South Apopka community, Bell says he would be a commissioner for everyone.
“I see myself as a champion for all of Apopka. My call is for all people. I just left the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – Dreamers) meeting at the Hope CommUnity Center. I’m a champion for that. I speak out for the farmworkers. I’m for anybody that doesn’t have a voice. I guess I’m just crazy and loud enough that I’m not afraid to speak up.”
And it is that loud, crazy, fearless description that Bell attributes to himself that is unusual for a would-be city commissioner where a diplomatic approach is often the norm for governance, but Bell is confident he can work with anyone on City Council or staff for the betterment of the community.
“I can get along with anybody, especially for a common cause. We as people should be able to agree on some things, but some things we won’t. But we can always agree to disagree and come together. The blueprint of the City of Apopka starts with the citizens at the top, the City Council in the middle, then the administration at the bottom. I think the city would be much better off if they started using that blueprint rather than the citizens at the bottom, the City Council in the middle, and the administration at the top. So yes I would work well with anybody. I was a 12-year veteran of the US Army. I worked with 5,000 men at one time that was in my command. I can get along with people, but to get along with me best is to get along and do what the citizens are saying.”
If elected, only time will only tell if Bell could transition from outspoken advocate to consensus-building commissioner, but at the end of the day, he is far more focused on the substance of his issues, than the tone he sets or the feathers he may ruffle.
“I’m a servant. I want to serve the people; I just don’t show up for photo-ops. I’m a person that is concrete and tangible. I’m direct. I’m not abstract. I’m somebody you can touch. And that’s the way I’m running my campaign.”