Death, taxes and change are 21st century certainties
To anyone like myself who has lived through the incredible upheavals of the late twentieth century, and now the frenetic pace of the internet age, that adage from founding father Benjamin Franklin, “…in this world nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes”, sounds staggeringly quaint. A lifetime of observation has led me to the inevitable conclusion that we must now add a third certainty to this truism…CHANGE. We cannot escape it for it permeates every facet of twenty-first-century life. Change, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad, it just is. Our reaction to change, however, how we shape it, is what makes it a positive or negative reality.
And nowhere does that reality apply any more starkly than here in our hometown of Apopka. New roads, commercial development, and residential communities are inexorably altering not just the physical landscape but also how we perceive our City and our place in it.
Last week’s opening of the SR 429 interchange at Kelly Park Road paves the way for Kelly Park Crossings, Apopka’s future northwest quadrant of employment, commercial, and residential hub. It holds the potential to bring tremendous economic development and tax revenues that will benefit the entire City. Likewise, the new Marden Road interchange at SR 414 has opened up Apopka’s southwest quadrant to residential and commercial projects that will support both the new Florida Hospital District and the East Shore (of Lake Apopka) District with its rapidly emerging eco-economy and eco-tourism focus.
In just the last three years, with the visionary guidance of this Mayor and Council, Apopka’s business and employment outlook has vastly improved. Fourteen new expanded or relocated businesses have passed through the City’s approval process to build new facilities. Highly diversified, they include industrial, manufacturing, warehousing and distribution, recycling, retail, high tech, and family services. The jobs these businesses are creating, plus increased staffing for Florida Hospital’s new facility, have expanded Apopka’s workforce by close to 1000 employees. This is truly positive change by any measure.
Then, too, these last three years have seen amazing growth in the residential sector. Since 2014, ten new housing communities, located throughout Apopka, have been approved and are now either completed or currently building. Three more are close to breaking ground, and another three are in various stages of the approval process. While single family homes still dominate the Apopka market, high-density housing like apartments and townhomes are increasingly comprising developers’ offerings. Thousands of new residents already call Apopka home. At just under 50,000 today, Apopka faces years of continued rapid growth ahead. Predictably, explosive growth places tremendous strains on city services and, consequently, on city budgets.
Having attended every budget workshop, the City has held over the last three years has made me keenly aware of our City’s herculean struggle to keep up with burgeoning demand. I’ve watched Mayor Kilsheimer, City staff, and Commissioners debate, and ultimately have to settle on half-measures, to deal with serious legacy issues in the delivery of city services. After years of the prior administration “kicking the can down the road,” this administration had no choice but to take immediate, and yes, costly, actions to deal with three acute needs.
First, an aging wastewater treatment plant, no longer able to keep up with the sewage loads of a population that had doubled in 15 years, was mandated by the State EPA to be rebuilt to twice its former capacity, at the cost of more than $50 million dollars. Construction is now ongoing.
Second, our police force hadn’t hired any additional officers in years due to chronic budget shortfalls, forcing our officer-to-1000-citizen ratio to a regional low of 1.97, well short of the Central Florida standard of 2.5. Every new police hire costs the City over $125,000 for salary, benefits and capital costs including police vehicle and all supporting equipment. Thankfully, through a combination of painful budget choices and a special Federal grant, the city was able to hire an additional 10 officers this fiscal year. But, our Department still needs twice that many to equal the level of service of our surrounding cities.
Third, our stellar ISO-1 rated fire department hadn’t been funded for more firefighters in 15 years. This despite our doubled population and a coverage area has now grown to 33 square miles, twice the size of Ocoee and Winter Garden. Consequently, for two years running, Council has been forced to dig deep, ignore the urgent staffing and equipment needs of the other City departments to build, staff and equip two additional fire stations at a cost of millions of dollars. Fire Station 5, scheduled to break ground next week at the Northwest Recreation Complex, required the hiring of 18 more firefighters and the purchase of fully-equipped fire engine and EMS ambulances. On top of this, the imminent opening of the new seven-story Florida Hospital in December has compelled the City to accelerate its timetable for bringing Fire Station 6 on line. Despite Florida Hospital supplying temporary quarters, the City was obligated to fund staffing and equipment needs right now, whether money was in the planned budget or not. The single required fire truck alone, called a “quint”, containing aerial devices capable of reaching the upper floors of the hospital, cost just under $1 million dollars fully equipped!
But, seriously, what choice does a responsible city, setting itself up for success, have? Apopka’s first duty is to protect the health, safety, and welfare of its citizens, so when adequate police and fire services are at stake, and millions of dollars in staffing and equipment needs are required, Council must, and did, make the hard and painful budget and funding choices to make it happen.
Lest you think (or hope) these needs-vs-revenue issues were a “one-off” this year, not to be repeated over and over in the coming years, you would be seriously mistaken. Budget workshops revealed that the City’s backlog of postponed needs is wide and deep. Until City revenues increase dramatically, our already strained City staff, struggling mightily under the crushing workload growth is bringing, making due with outmoded and inefficient equipment, coupled with our inability to keep up with urgent capital improvements, will continue to hold Apopka back. Hold us back from successfully competing for economic development with our neighboring SR 429 cities, Ocoee and Winter Garden. The day is coming when we will have to have a serious, “adults only” conversation with our City residents and businesses about how we deal with these chronic revenue shortfalls. Be assured that our surrounding cities are moving full speed ahead in funding their visions. As a city, we either embrace the coming changes, and their attendant costs or risk becoming irrelevant. Nothing less than our economic viability and quality of life are at stake.
Remember, CHANGE, in and of itself is neutral. It’s our reaction to it, our embrace or rejection of it that will determine Apopka’s future course. Let’s hope we make the right choice!