By Reggie Connell
In recent weeks, the Apopka City Council has taken on elements of dramatic theater not often seen from a governing body. It started with a mid-term resignation of one of its commissioners, then moved to an anonymous letter regarding merit pay for Apopka police, and finally culminated in an epic plot twist by City Attorney Michael A. Rodriguez at the conclusion of Wednesday’s meeting.
As they say on a social media video: Keep watching to the end.
Just over two weeks ago, Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson, City Administrator Edward Bass, and three members of the Apopka City Commission received an anonymous email from the address “apopkapoliceofficers@gmail.
com.” that was critical of the budget as it related to the Apopka Police Department’s merit-pay program. The author of that letter came forward Wednesday night at the City Council meeting.
“My name is Sam Anderson, and I’m here regarding next year’s budget. I wrote the letter that you all received on the topic of the merit program. And I stand behind it.”
Anderson is an 11-year veteran of the APD. He’s been a police officer for 14 years and is currently a traffic homicide investigator. But tonight he did not wear a police uniform, nor did he state that he was speaking on behalf of APD officers. He did, however, explain the why of anonymity in regard to the letter.
“I didn’t sign it for several reasons. First of all, I believe it represents the general mood within the police department and not the feelings of one person. I don’t think anyone could have written a letter that captured everyone’s feelings perfectly. But someone has to be the voice for those who have concerns or who fear retaliation for speaking up. And it served its purpose – it got a conversation started. Writing and sending that letter, and being here tonight, are not acts of cowardice.”
Anderson began this pushback about merit-pay in 2018 when he spoke before the City Council with dozens of APD officers and their families in attendance. Despite the passion he and others displayed that evening, he believes nothing has changed.
“I stood here in 2018 and mentioned just about everything in that letter. It’s extremely frustrating that we have to fight this battle for the second time in three years. And it’s not just about COVID. I believe the proof is in the numbers. Commissioner (Kyle) Becker recently asked why we didn’t address this sooner, or have discussions with him. I feel like it’s the Police Chief’s job to have those discussions and lobby for us. But when I asked the Chief about it, he said he didn’t hear about these proposed cuts until Mr. Bass (Apopka City Administrator Edward Bass) put them up on a PowerPoint. We seem to have no liaison or effective communication.”
According to his research, Anderson says other agencies are out in front of Apopka, despite not having merit pay.
“When you hear from other municipalities that aren’t getting a COLA (Cost of Living Assessment), you may be missing the bigger picture that they have either merit or tenure-based plan. I spoke with the D/C at Winter Park PD last week. Their officers with 0-5 years of service get 5% raises annually. Their sergeants get a 3.5% raise and their lieutenants making $75,000 or more get a 1% raise. So even though you may have heard that a particular City isn’t giving a COLA next year, there are almost certainly other built-in retention incentives.”
According to Anderson, Nelson sent out an email to employees on July 31, with the proposed budget attached that itemizes a $3-million shortfall in sales tax revenue and a property tax increase, which will generate $900,000 of additional income.
“The mayor’s email references a remaining $1 million deficit and states that the sale of the property at Sandpiper and Rock Springs will close “most of that gap,” Anderson said. “If you go on the City’s website, you’ll see this parcel listed for $1,267,500. You may call this being conservative, but I’ve listed major discrepancies in just one email from the Mayor.”
Anderson closed his four-minute comment with a final suggestion for the APD budget.
“I don’t mean to come up here and gripe… but people are not exactly knocking down our door to become cops if you haven’t seen the news recently. And on that topic, we have 98 filled positions of 112 that were authorized. The question is, do we have those funds? Could we not fill three-quarters of those vacancies, and the funding that you have for the remainder, use as a retention incentive for the people you have here, now, rather than the revolving door, rather than the $100,000-plus dollars that I think it’s estimated to cost to hire a new police officer. Why not just keep the good people, the dedicated people that we have here to keep them happy? It just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, but I appreciate your time.”
Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson wished to clarify specific issues with Anderson’s presentation before moving on to other public comments.
“There are a couple of things that you may have misunderstood,” Nelson said to Anderson. “We might get $1.2-million for Sandpiper… and if we do, it will all go either toward reducing outstanding liabilities, or toward raises, or capital improvements… but other than that, yeah, what you said is pretty accurate.”
“At any rate, I think the money’s there, I don’t understand,” said Anderson.
“So, wait a minute, so where is the money, then? I’m just trying to understand,” said Nelson.
“Well, we gave up somewhere between a half-million and a million dollars revenue from a red light camera program with absolutely no plan to replace it,” said Anderson. And I’ll quote you on that ‘The police will have to write tickets to make up for that.'”
“I’m not sure that’s a quote, but okay,” Nelson said. “And I don’t think that the net revenue from – if you go back and look at the numbers from red-light cameras, I don’t think the net revenue is anywhere near that number.”
City Commissioner Kyle Becker, an opponent of red light cameras, clarified the program’s net revenue.
“That particular line item is just the ramping down, the closure, that’s the remaining infractions that were still outstanding from my understanding,” said Becker. “But generally speaking, during the height of that program, the City was netting just shy of a million dollars a year.”
He also wanted to hear a more specific counter-proposal from the APD employees.
“I’ll just carry on from the conversation I had at the last meeting… what is the ask? For this year, knowing where we’re at… what’s the middle ground here that we can start talking through? Like we’ve all said, the final final date isn’t until September 9, so there is still some opportunity for us to discuss this at the Council level.”
“I think we’re all sensitive to that,” said Anderson. “I don’t think we have any sort of unreasonable or unrealistic expectation. But if you remove a merit-based program, then you remove incentives for performance, right? It’s not a show up to work and get a raise, that’s not the way we do business, we never have.”
“I don’t think anybody disagrees with that,” Nelson said. “I would not disagree with that. I would love to have a merit base. I’d love to be at four or five percent. But we felt like the employees deserved something, but you know we’ve got 500 employees, and every one (percentage) point, everybody figured across the board from public services to administration to fire and police, is $300,000.”
“The frustration lies in the fact that, when I asked the Chief about this he said the first he heard about these budget cuts were on a PowerPoint last month,” said Anderson. “I don’t know if that’s true or not. It’s frustrating that we have no voice, no liaison, and that’s why you see us going in the direction of collective bargaining. I’m not saying we want it. That’s a double-edged sword – we’re all aware of that – but we want to talk. We want to communicate. We don’t want to be blindsided.”
“I can tell you there’s not been a blindside,” Nelson said. “We’ve been as completely transparent and open on the process. I’m surprised that you’d say that (about Chief McKinley). He came in with a list of things he needed to have. A list of wants, a list of things that he’d love to do, and some additional benefits for the police. And fire has the same thing, and public works, but it’s like, okay guys, here’s where we’re at, we’ve got this we’ve got to do. Then there’s what we’d like to do, and raises were part of that, merit raises, whatever you want to call them, were part of that discussion. I don’t know how we get there. And it’s not to say in January, if we’re wrong and the sales tax comes back, it’s not to say we can’t do something at that point. So I think we all want to get to where you want to be, and I don’t think anybody’s here opposed to giving raises. But man, it’s just a tough time to look for money when the constituents are struggling at least as hard as you guys are.”
“I wouldn’t ask for, or expect… even though I think our millage rate is artificially low, and it’s too late now… but, if you sold that piece of property Mayor, for more… may I have your assurance in front of everybody that money will be applied toward a retention program?” Anderson asked.
“Well, I’m only one vote, so I can’t,” said Nelson. “But, I will suggest that we take a look at that, absolutely.”
Before Anderson left the podium, Commissioner Alexander H. Smith clarified his description from the previous City Council meeting in which he described the anonymous writer of the letter as a coward.
“I was the one that made that comment last week, hoping that whoever it was would come forward,” said Smith. “And the reason I did was because there were several officers who also emailed and said that they were not a part of that letter, and they were perfectly happy, and so I wanted to see who it was that actually wrote the letter.”
“I’m only aware of one Commissioner, do you know of any others?” Anderson asked.
“Yes, there’s more than one,” Smith said. “And as I looked at the letter, there were at least two things that I agree with you on. I agree that the deputy chief position needs to be filled. The Chief asked for two additional officers because of the growth of our city, and I believe he needs those two officers. So I’m not in favor of only hiring one-third of those and leaving the others vacant if we need them. I appreciate the fact that our police department patrols our City, takes care of its citizens, and solves crimes. Those two items in your letter I agreed with. I understand the fact that you really want the merit pay… and it’s not that we’re taking it away… all we said, is that based on our budget this year, that we’re not able to give the merit that you’re desiring this year. And all we’re asking is that you to work with us, let’s be team players and allow us to get through this budget year and see what next year looks like, because we don’t want to fight against one another, we want to work together.”
“Well Commissioner, with all due respect, I think something very similar was said two years ago, and we had a one year pause, in which, be honest, someone in this room got a big raise,” said Anderson. “And here we are in the third year, fighting the same battle. So, again, respectfully, that’s a politician’s promise.”
“Well, I’m not a politician. I’m a servant,” Smith said.
“As am I, and I don’t make false promises,” said Anderson.
“And neither do I,” said Smith.
Becker, who had earlier reserved his comments on this subject, still saw room for compromise between the Council and the APD.
“I want to empathize a little bit on both sides here, just to lay the groundwork of how we’ve gotten to where we’ve gotten thus far. Going into our budget workshops… that to me is our time to air this stuff out. And I’ve heard what you’ve said in terms of communication. There is a general unawareness. Again, if that’s a top-down messaging issue or just general awareness, there was a miss because we’re having this conversation now, not during the budget workshops. Because during the budget workshops we should have been saying, ‘If we’re not doing these merit increases commiserate to what our benchmark cities and other agencies are doing, we stand to not even be able to fill positions; we stand to attrite additional positions’. So we’ve missed that opportunity. But we’re here today. There were comments last week, comments by yourself, comments from the previous speaker in terms of merit, and I disagree that we have to stay where we’re at between now and September 9. I think there is room for us to put a little bit more, in terms of merit, in addition to the COLA that we’ve already budgeted for.”
Anderson agreed with Becker that more negotiations might be better than other options.
“I may be the only one, but I agree that we could probably bypass collective bargaining,” Anderson said. “The cost that’s associated with that, the red tape that’s associated with that… if we could have constructive conversations rather than being caught off guard, one year, and then three years later.”
Commissioner Doug Bankson, now in his fifth budget cycle as a member of the City Council, was surprised by the anonymous letter and Anderson’s objections.
“I always, of course, have had a heart for our first responders, and want to do what we can do. I know that that is our heart. And I think it kind of hit me like, you just got served with divorce papers and you didn’t even get asked to the counselor… you know? What I seemed to hear was they’re not sure how to approach that, and it was a frustration that was boiling, and not sure who to come to, and as you said, I think that, hopefully, we can work together. I don’t know where it is in the process now, so I held any comment. I think the heart is there for the City. I think this is a challenging time for us, and as you pointed out, we don’t want to put that on the backs of the taxpayers, that many of them have lost jobs. We’ve already had to raise that, and my concern is, is it enough? Because we still have variables. But I think there are some areas we can look at, and I want to be sensitive to that. I think that’s what they’re saying, is, does this City care about them and their future? And I think we do, and we do have time to address those, so I’m just hopeful that we’re not put into a corner that will keep us from being able to work with that.”
Smith also pointed to all of Apopka’s employees.
“I want to make sure that the police, fire, and general employees understand that we value all of them,” Smith said. “And when I say that we value all of them, we don’t want departments pitting against one another. We value all of our employees. We understand that each has their roles, and they have different requirements, and some are more high risk than others, but we value them all, and just want to make sure that they understand that.”
After public comments concluded, City Attorney Michael A. Rodriguez informed Council that he had received a notice that the employees of the Apopka Police Department had taken steps to unionize.
“We did receive receipt from the Florida Public Employees Relations Commission (PERC) that they received a request, a petition, for what’s called “registration and certification of a union” on behalf of the Police Department employees. It was filed by the Police Benevolent Association and now, just before the meeting, Chief (Michael) McKinley did hand me, that right now, he’s been served with the paper work.”
“So are we already down that road, and no ability to make a u-turn?” Bankson asked. “I know there’s 46 employees that apparently signed on. What’s the process there?”
“We’re at step one,” said Rodriguez. “They have filed. There are two options when you have employees that are trying to organize: They can attempt to organize and then ask the City to voluntarily recognize them as the bargaining unit; or they can go straight to PERC and file their petition for registration and certification. These employees went straight to PERC.”
Rodriguez went on to say he doubts that collective bargaining will be a part of the negotiation for this fiscal budget.
“I think based on the timeline, I mean I could be wrong, but based on the timelines that we now have for filing, for any objections, and how long PERC usually takes, any potential collective bargaining with the employees units probably is going to affect the fiscal year 2021-2022 budget. I don’t think there’s going to be enough time for them to be able to negotiate for fiscal year 20-21.”
“And are we no longer allowed to have discussions now that they have gone to PERC?” Bankson asked.
“At this point, I would want to err on the side of caution. I want to take a conservative approach on that.”
“I’m respectful of our charter,” said Becker. “I don’t mean to instruct any employees how to do anything, but obviously you’ve seen here, employees feel empowered to voice their opinions, as a resident of Apopka. I just want to make sure… I don’t want to misstep.”
“I wouldn’t advise you to not listen to employees, but I think it’s important not to take a position of offering a negotiation because, with all due respect to the officer who did come and speak here earlier, I don’t know if he’s been authorized. I don’t know if he’s one of the names listed. Neither does this Council know if he’s an authorized person to speak on behalf of a group of employees who are attempting to organize. Not to put this in the police aspect but, you know, ‘you have the right to remain silent so that none of your statements can be used against you.’ That’s why I always like to err on the side of caution and be conservative in that aspect.”
Comments and dialog above have been edited for length. For the full recording and details of the August 19 Apopka City Council meeting, go here.