Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson, City Administrator Edward Bass, and three members of the Apopka City Commission received an anonymous email from the address “firstname.lastname@example.org” on August 3rd. Also on the list of recipients was former City Clerk Linda Goff, interim City Clerk Susan Bone, Executive Assistant to the Mayor Stacy VanCamp, The Apopka Chief, and The Apopka Voice.
The letter, just over 1,000 words in length and titled “Making the case for Police Department merit increases – again”, claimed to speak for Apopka police officers and covered a range of subjects, but primarily focused on salaries and merit pay.
Through a number of phone calls, and emails, The Apopka Voice has confirmed the identity of the letter’s author. It was also confirmed that the person is an Apopka police officer, and the owner of the “email@example.com” email address.
The email begins with a request:
“We ask that this letter be read at the Council meeting on August 5, 2020. The letter has also been pasted into an Intent to Speak form on the City’s website. If the letter does not get read, we plan to appear in person at the August 19, 2020 Council meeting to read it ourselves. Thank you for your time and consideration.”
The letter in its entirety is as follows:
“Making the case for Police Department merit increases – again
Council Members and Mayor,
We find ourselves in unusual times. With a pandemic and anti-police sentiment at an all time high, many officers throughout the nation find themselves questioning their career choice, and their futures. In assessing the risks, scrutiny, danger and mental health issues facing the profession, we are left to turn to our employers for support. That support must include incentivizing a thankless profession with competitive compensation.
We therefore must protest this administration’s proposed across the board 1% COLA (cost-of-living adjustment) for the upcoming fiscal year. Much in the same way as the 20 PTO hours that were given to police officers (when civilian employees got 80 hours off amid COVID city closures), we do not accept this 1% proposal as a gesture of generosity. The PTO issue amplifies the falsehood of the Council’s 2018 remark that it thinks all City employees should be treated equally. Practice what you preach.
Again, we find ourselves bringing to your attention the fact that we are eligible to receive merit increases based on an in-depth annual performance evaluation. These are not “show up for work and get a raise” increases. Obviously, that’s what a COLA is. Completely removing the possibility of merit increases means a disincentive for maintaining physical fitness, not generating citizen complaints, not misusing force, not damaging city property and vehicles, attending career-advancement training, and many of the other performance measures on which our merit increases are based.
We have aggressively and successfully worked to secure the votes needed to proceed with collective bargaining (labor union). Going forward, we are confident that we will have a contract. A contract will force the City to address many of the issues that we’ve tried to address before – such as a pay step plan, hazard pay, on-call pay, cell phone stipends, and continuity in discipline. A contract will be costly both to us and to the City, but we are seemingly left with no choice.
In the meantime, our only recourse to make up these proposed merit increase losses will be to engage the City in litigation for years of unpaid standby pay. Fleet Maintenance, Information Technology, Street Maintenance, the Water Department, POLICE DISPATCHERS, and others, receive standby pay. Police Detectives, Hostage Negotiators, SWAT Operators, K-9 Handlers, Traffic Homicide Investigators and others, receive no such pay, despite City Policy which states otherwise. These men and women are at the mercy of an on-call system, under which they are compelled by policy to be accessible. But they receive zero standby pay, are not provided with a pager or phone, and are subject to termination if they have a beer while on call. The back pay resulting from litigation would, without question, amount to millions of dollars.
Chief McKinley’s recent budget speech omitted one key statistic – how many police officers Apopka actually has. While we are budgeted for 112, and he asked for more, he neglected to tell you that we actually have around or less than 100 currently employed. That number continues to fall, as we see a perpetually revolving door of officers leaving for better agencies. Others have simply gotten fed up with this City’s politics and the Police Department’s lack of representation and leadership, and have retired early. You all were warned about this possibility in 2018 when our merit increases were last under attack.
So the question is – if we’re authorized 112 positions, including a six-figure Deputy Chief vacancy, where is that money? That seems like about a million or more dollars that should be budgeted for, but that we are not spending. How about using some of that money to try and retain the dedicated employees that you have, rather than constantly replacing them. We’ve brought countless other money-saving ideas to the attention of the Chief, Mayor and Council. Things like online crime reporting, civilian community service officers, records volunteers, leased cars, we’ve openly questioned why non-enforcement police staff need police interceptor vehicles, and this has all been like hitting a tennis ball at a brick wall.
Furthermore, how much prime real estate does the City of Apopka own that it could sell to a developer who might open a restaurant or shopping center? How much more money does the Mayor’s office need added to its budget? How many more parking lots, many blocks away from any new development, need resurfacing at a cost of nearly a half million dollars?
In terms of the overall budget, the COVID economic impact to the City of Apopka for FY 2021 will be minimal. That is a known and documented fact – just look at the proposed budget. There are still umpteen new, revenue generating developments happening around every corner. The federal government may eventually or may have already begun the process of infusing money into local governments so that they don’t have to make budget cuts. Why the knee-jerk reaction to our merit increases when none of these tax revenue numbers are finalized? Why not reverse the Mayor’s massive, campaign-defying raise? You could give every City employee at least a $100 bonus just with that.
We pay to take our cars outside of the City, we pay to clean them, and we pay to have them waxed for inspection, under threat of supervisory recourse, when other agencies simply have a carwash account for their fleets. The same with uniform dry cleaning. And cell phones. And if you’d like to survey your City employees about what’s important – merit increases or new buildings – we can pretty much guarantee the answer.
Now is the time to make wise investments in your employees and infrastructure. We could all learn from Mayor Land’s philosophy of treating City employees like family. We are left with much to desire from his current successor. Many unanswered questions. Many unhappy employees. Do the right thing here. No more arbitrary terminations of high-ranking employees. No more inexplicable resignations. No more questioning health insurance and pension benefits. Don’t let the destruction of employee morale be your political legacy. Budget for merit increases.”
The letter was signed ‘Apopka Police’.
The author of the letter spoke to The Apopka Voice in a phone interview on the condition of anonymity. They explained their motivations to send the anonymous email, and expanded on some of the points made in the letter.
According to the officer, “the vast majority, if not all, of the APD officers are in agreement with the terms laid out in the letter”.
“I heard nothing but positive feedback, calls, and emails,” they said. “From command staff, all the way up to the captain level, they understand that someone needs to speak up for us.”
They went on to explain why they did not use the traditional chain of command to voice their concerns over income-related issues.
“I have had many conversations with Chief (Michael) McKinley, expressing concerns, and his usual response was ‘I’m fighting for you behind the scenes.’ That makes no sense to me from a police chief. Why wouldn’t you address these things in an open forum in public where they and the officers can hear it?.”
They also referenced the ‘seemingly endless negotiation battle’ they are in with the current administration.
“This is the third consecutive year we had to fight to maintain status quo. It was effective. We went from 3% to 6% (3% in merit, and 3% in COLA). In 2019 – we attempted to form a union, but then the City released a salary survey, and we saw pay scales change for the first time in a decade. If we fight them, we can at least maintain what we have.”
They went on to say that while the timing of these negotiations is concerning because of COVID-19 and potential budget shortfalls, the cost-cutting shouldn’t fall solely on the APD and its officers.
“I am concerned about some of the projects that the city invests in, the size and growth of the city, and at least since this mayor came in, scrapping together pennies to put a budget together. We’ve proposed money saving ideas, but we are budgeted for 112 police officers and we have considerably less than that. Where does that money go if we don’t have them?”
The officer’s hope is that the letter will be read into the record at the August 5th City Council meeting, and then be acted on. But if it isn’t, the plan will move forward in the form of in-person statements made at the following meeting by members of the APD.
“The Mayor complained last time (in 2018) how confrontational we were when all of us (APD officers) showed up. So we are giving them (City Council) an opportunity without the pressure of us in the room – like two years ago – with spouses and families.”
And if that doesn’t work, litigation tactics might be employed.
“We have recourse with collective bargaining. If we can’t maintain what we have, there’s no turning back. The City will owe lots of money if this goes into litigation. Several officers have contacted labor attorneys, but have been told to be ready to ‘Kiss your career good-bye’. I’m not afraid to do it. I don’t think we’re asking for unreasonable things here. The explanations we’re getting aren’t enough.”
Not all APD officers were in agreement with the letter, however.
Through a public records request, The Apopka Voice obtained a copy of an email from APD Sgt. Edwin Chittenden on August 3 in response to the letter. Sgt. Chittenden’s email was addressed to Apopka Commissioners Bankson, Becker, and Smith, city staff members Bass, Bones, VanCamp and former staff member Goff, and cc’d to APD Chief McKinley. It reads:
“I feel it necessary to say, that the “anonymous” letter from the “Apopka Police Officers” does NOT reflect the overall opinion of APD. Many of us reject the letter, had no say in its content, nor had any knowledge of its creation.
We don’t appreciate being grouped into this letter, and hope it is not read at City Council. Thank you for your understanding, and I will be praying for all of you during this unprecedented time.
Sgt. Edwin Chittenden”
The Apopka Voice also contacted Mayor Nelson, members of the city commission, and Chief McKinley for a response to the anonymous letter.
Mayor Nelson sent the following – an email with the proposed 2020-2021 budget attached – that had been sent to all city employees, including the APD, prior to the anonymous email. In speaking with Mayor Nelson, he wondered if perhaps the anonymous letter was in response to this. His emailed budget letter reads as follows:
“When I was elected 2½ years ago, I knew that I needed someone at my side who knew the city and could help craft a financial plan for the city not just for one year but decades into the future. That person, Edward Bass, has proved invaluable to putting the City in great financial order. By reducing the debt by over $8M, we are able to reallocate these dollars toward the general budget. In addition, we have streamlined our departments to be more efficient.
We had hoped to accumulate healthy reserves in order to start several important projects throughout the City. However, the reserves were wiped out due to the pandemic. For instance, we had planned to design and build a new Public Safety building, add additional recreational opportunities to the NW Rec Center and give our other departments the resources needed to get the City to the next level. As of March 15th, just before COVID hit, we had a revenue over expense of over $3M. By the time this fiscal year ends on September 31st, we will have burned through almost all of the savings that had been created in the first 6 months.
We now face a budget deficit of over $2M based on a $3M shortfall in sales tax revenue along with other smaller losses from the COVID pandemic. If not for an increase in property tax (ad valorem) of $1M, we would be in even worse shape. We have proposed a property tax increase of ¼ mill, which will increase taxes by 25 dollars per $100,000 of value which will generate $900,000 of additional revenue. This still leaves the City with a $1M deficit for next year. We are proposing to sell the property at the corner of Sandpiper and Rock Springs Road to close most of that gap. Our budget is lean with expenses only going up $1M on a $50M budget and revenue going down over $2M.
Even though we face this budget crisis, we still managed to include a 1% cost of living increase for every employee and will absorb the cost of the additional 11% increase in medical insurance for each employee.”
The Apopka Voice reached back out to the officer to inquire if their letter was written in response to the Mayor’s budget letter. Their response, “The idea of our letter to the (City) Council was in the works prior to that. But when we saw “fiscal responsibility” (in the Mayor’s letter), we thought back to 2018. Cutting red light cameras with no (plan for) replacement of revenue – that’s not showing fiscal responsibility.” They confirmed that the letter spurred on the completing and sending of their email, saying, “His (the Mayor’s) letter was not an adequate explanation.”
The Mayor told The Apopka Voice that the anonymous letter would not be read into the record at the City Council meeting today. “There’s no name or address,” said Mayor Nelson. “You have to give your name and address at City Council. John Doe won’t work.”
Watch the City Council meeting – Live Streaming on YouTube
The City of Apopka is live streaming City meetings on their YouTube channel. Today’s meeting, Wednesday, August 5, 2020, will be at 1:30pm.
To view the meeting agenda, please visit their Agendas and Minutes page. Please visit their Form Center to complete a Notice of Intent to Speak. Submissions are due by 9 AM the day of the meeting. The City Clerk can also be reached at 407-703-1704.
Editor’s Note: The Apopka Voice did not confirm statements of fact that were asserted in the anonymous letter or in Mayor Nelson’s budget email.