It all started out innocent enough.
The final City Council budget workshop was winding down. There was discussion on replacing an aged tunnel-boring machine that had seen better days.
Commissioner Doug Bankson started a discussion on replacing infrastructure.
“We need to get back to a healthier place as a whole infrastructure-wise,” he stated. “We’re hearing this from every department. So I think the better we can communicate that so the city can understand that we have to do some of these things.”
Apopka Public Services Director Jay Davoll was pleased to hear this, and for the proposed funding his department received during the workshops.
“I will say some of the things you’ve added to my budget will help with morale,” he said. “Bringing the boring machine up to standards means the staff can go out and do a job in a day and a half instead of a week and a half.”
Commissioner Kyle Becker joked that the boring machine should be called an exciting machine, and Mayor Joe Kilsheimer added that it would be exciting because it actually works.
Bankson continued his thoughts on the need to upgrade infrastructure in Apopka, but he also made mention of the previous leadership.
“I think I can say in past history, the past decade that we lived through that those before us have done their best to get us through a very difficult time, but everyone needs to understand we need to start catching up on these things and we have to make wise decisions. We really need to look at five years to make up for the five years that we were just holding our own.”
Commissioner Diane Velazquez questioned Bankson’s recollection of the reason Apopka is where it is right now.
“I keep hearing about the downturn, but it wasn’t always the downturn,” she said.
That seemed to trigger Kilsheimer into the discussion with a self-described “rant” that started with his remarks two weeks ago, but in some ways had been 20 years in the making.
“I’m going to be blatantly political here,” he said. “I went on this rant a couple weeks ago, and I got slammed for it in The Apopka Chief.”
Kilsheimer was referring to a letter to the editor written by David Rankin to The Apopka Chief, and published in the August 12th edition in which Rankin was critical of Kilsheimer for his remarks that the previous administration was not honest with Apopka citizens.
Kilsheimer not only answered the critique, but added, clarified and hammered home his point over the next several minutes of the workshop.
“We did not do budget workshops like we are doing now until last year. We never held budget workshops. My first year as a City Commissioner the first time I saw the budget was at the budget hearing. I asked how we could get the public involved in the budget process, and I was read the riot act by Mayor (John) Land for 10 minutes. We never did this. We never told the public what the needs of the city were. We were not honest with the public.”
“I’d just like to keep us positive and moving forward,” Bankson said. “Honestly I think we’re growing and evolving.”
“Yes, hallelujah,” said Kilsheimer. “That’s what I’ve been saying. I want the city to be on a glide path so we don’t have to buy six garbage trucks all at the same time… so that we don’t run equipment into the ground… and just be honest with people and say this is actually what it takes to run your city folks.”
Kilsheimer pivoted to another theme that seemed to be debated in previous workshops and at least the last two election cycles – tax rates versus quality of life.
“Don’t take such pleasure in this idea that we are the lowest cost, full service city in Central Florida. Because guess what? That doesn’t do anybody any favors. It hasn’t done anyone any favors to tell people ‘we can do this without raising your taxes’ because guess what? You have employees taking a week and a half to do a job that should take a day and a half. And that is just the way things were here, and to be dishonest about that isn’t doing anybody any favors either. To be dishonest about the fact that we never had budget workshops until last year is wrong.”
“I don’t know if we need to go there with these terms,” said Bankson. “But I’m simply saying that… I think when we were a small city; we didn’t do all of these things. And now we are doing things better and in an efficient manner as we move forward. But I don’t want us to get into a place where we are attacking people who can’t defend themselves. Let’s just simply understand that where we are is partially due to the economic times that we went through.”
“We didn’t re-do the economic development code since 1993,” Kilsheimer said. “We have a CRA (Community Reinvestment Act) that’s been in place for 20 years and we’ve never done anything for it.”
“How does this move us forward?” Bankson asked.
“Be honest about it,” Kilsheimer responded.
“I don’t think it’s dishonesty,” said Bankson.
“Doug, the facts are in front of you,” Kilsheimer said to Bankson. “The facts are we did not tell people what it took to run this government until 2015. We did not hold budget workshops. That is a fact.”
“We didn’t tell people one thing when it was the other,” Bankson said in response. “We did not tell people the opposite… so to say we were dishonest is not true.”
“We hid the facts,” Kilsheimer said. “What else are you going to call it? We hid the facts.”
At 5:30PM, and after several minutes of heated discussion between Bankson and Kilsheimer, City Administrator Glenn Irby jumped into the fray to remind everyone of the 7PM conclusion to the workshop.
“Gentlemen, we’re not going to get through this,” he said, moving the conversation back to the budget.
The rest of the workshop was civil and productive and concluded at 6:59 PM with consensus on a modest 0.5 millage increase, but the debates that surfaced are likely to return.
Apopka seems to be experiencing political growing pains as it decides if it is going to be a city that celebrates its past, looks to the future, or tries to do a little of both. It may take a couple more elections to sort things out, but on this day a budget was crafted that the City Council gave unanimous consent to… and now the process moves to public hearings in September where more debate is certain to take place.