City Council Preview:
By Reggie Connell/Managing Editor of The Apopka Voice
It’s going to be a long City Council meeting tonight.
After using the first meeting of the month to deal with the Fiscal Budget 2018-19, the Council will attempt to cram two sessions into one as they take on 10 consent agenda items, 10 business items, eight public hearings/ordinance resolutions, a City Council report and a mayor’s report which includes an update on the July 4th fireworks issue.
There may also be a long line for public comments, considering one of the agenda items being discussed.
Front and center at tonight’s meeting will be the millage rate discussion, and what discussion about millage rates would be complete without a red light camera (RLC) debate? Tonight the Council will pick their poison in order to balance the $800,000 shortfall.
Apopka City Administrator Edward Bass wasn’t kidding when he said he cut this budget to its bones. Bass estimates he trimmed $5-6 million from original requests by department heads, which represents approximately 10% of what was in the first draft. Bass also approved only four out of 50 requests for new hires.
By any measurement, this is as tight as Bass can take this budget without a loss in service.
But despite his cost-cutting efforts, Bass still came up approximately $800,000 short in balancing the 2018-19 fiscal edition, and he left the City Council with four options to close the gap – millage rate increase, turn the RLC program back on for the 2018-19 cycle, additional budget cuts, and pulling from the general fund reserves.
The Council did some cutting of their own by quickly ruling out additional cuts or general fund reserve spending. That left RLC revenue, and/or a millage rate increase. There were debates and discussion at the July 5th Budget workshop, but no obvious consensus.
Bass summarized those two options this way:
- Increase the millage rate
“When you talk about balancing the budget, and like I said we are still about $800,000 from doing that, we looked at how we get to a zero balance,” Bass said. “Nobody likes to bring this to the table ever, but the millage rate is something you can work with. That is something you have in your powers and control.”
Bass also pointed out that if the Council proposed a millage rate change, the proposal should be an increase, because it is easier to lower a proposed rate change than to increase it at a later meeting.
- Continue the red light camera program
“The red light camera program is only in this budget through December 31st (2018),” Bass said. “So there’s $800,000-$900,000 probably that we’ve taken out (for 2019) because we are removing those cameras. Keep in mind as Chief McKinley (Apopka Police Chief Michael McKinley) said we don’t have enough officers to enforce those intersections the way they are done now.”
Commissioners Doug Bankson and Alice Nolan seemed to favor extending the RLC program in their remarks after the presentation. Bankson voted in favor of the program last year, but Nolan was a new convert after running against red light cameras in the 2018 election. But at the workshop, she was open to the idea of phasing-out the RLC program beyond the proposed December 2018 deadline instead of pulling a large income stream from the budget when it was needed to close a gap. She referenced a large group of Apopka residents who had contacted her after the election who were in favor of keeping the cameras in place even before the budget shortfall was known.
“I know there’s a strong group that doesn’t like them (red light cameras), but if we get the education out on red light cameras, I think it would help,” Nolan said. “I know since I took my seat I have gotten an overwhelming amount of emails and phone calls of people stating how much they like them, which is a lot different than what I had heard on the campaign trail. I personally think that we should consider keeping them and build up our revenues and make the decision to get rid of them later. That is a big item in our revenue base that we would be taking out, and that is hard to do.”
Commissioner Alexander H. Smith did not state a preference during the meeting but later seemed open to the possibility of delaying an end to the RLC program.
Nelson, who was also an opponent of RLC’s during the election, offered an alternative for squaring the budget.
“Apopka is making the transition from a bedroom community to a vibrant city where you want to live, work and play. We’ve had so much residential for so many years, but we’re starting to make the transition to more commercial, but right now we’re still residentially-heavy. So one of the things I’m going to look at is the cost of services per house because it doesn’t matter the size of the house, the services are basically the same, so at some point, we are giving more services than the ad valorem taxes rate we are charging. We will have to look at that as we go forward. With all that said, my recommendation is, and only because as Edward (Bass) said we can go down easier than we can go up… My suggestion is that we put in a quarter point ad valorem tax increase. At least we set it in motion so that we can come back with our ducks in a row, look at what we’re going to do with the red light cameras, or ad valorem tax increase and continue to look at the budget, but if everybody can agree we can put it into motion.”
Becker not only agreed with Nelson’s suggestion, he doubled-down on the strategy.
“Because the idea is we can come back later and go down on the millage rate, we should do a half mill, because the quarter mill doesn’t even get us to a balance. If that’s the philosophy, this allows us the opportunity to potentially put economic development back into play and we can start coming up with the sizzle-thing within our city outside of just great services. It also allows us the opportunity to start putting money back into the reserve balance which gets us back to a level playing field.”
Bankson, who had proposed the RLC program extension as the best way to balance the budget, was also comfortable with the proposed millage rate increase because of the security it could potentially provide.
“As long as I know that we’re going to put the safety back in place, that we are going to put policies in place that will keep us safe and sound moving forward, I’ll be much more comfortable to give us that room to keep us moving forward.”
Because this is ultimately going to be discussed and voted on tonight, The Apopka Voice did not directly ask any of the Council their intentions on millage rate increases or the RLC program because of the possibility it could potentially break Sunshine Laws. However, their previous votes, remarks at the July 5th City Council meeting, and comments in previous interviews shed some light on what might happen tonight.
Becker not only voted against RLC’s last year but offered the most vocal opposition to them. He is a clear no-vote and is on the record as favoring a 1/2-point millage rate increase to balance the budget.
Nelson ran strongly against red light cameras in the 2018 election and suggested a 1/4 millage rate increase to balance the budget at the July 5th workshop, and while he allowed the RLC discussion to continue, made no claim to support it.
Bankson voted in favor of the RLC program last year and was quick to propose a one-year extension. While he seemed open to a millage rate increase at the end of the meeting, he seems to favor the RLC option.
Nolan too, in her remarks, seems to favor the RLC extension, although she did not comment on a millage rate increase.
Smith, therefore, becomes the swing vote on any proposed millage rate increase, and the RLC program. He is the City Council version of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, and his comments leave room for an affirmative RLC vote or a millage rate increase.
So which will it be?
The Apopka Voice has a suggestion – consider doing both.
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 that were patrolling the streets of Apopka.
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, which would increase the shortfall to approximately $1.3 million.
Leaving the RLC program in place as Bankson and Nolan suggested would increase revenues by approximately $800,000. Adding a 1/4 point increase as Nelson suggested to the millage rate would increase revenues by approximately $775,000. Adding a 1/2 point increase to the millage rate as Becker suggested would increase revenues by approximately $1.55 million.
Clearly, the revenue to balance the budget and keep the APD on a positive (or at least a status quo) trajectory in relation to the city’s growth is possible within the proposals already suggested by the City Council. And if the RLC program is to continue, shouldn’t its revenues go back to enhance public safety in Apopka and not just balance a budget?