By Reggie Connell/Managing Editor of The Apopka Voice
A fiscal budget is in many ways a comprehensive look at the financial state of a city. It covers everything – expenditures, tax rates, reserves, growth, and typically a vision going forward.
The Apopka City Council voted 5-0 at their July 31st meeting to approve the first draft of the 2019-2020 fiscal budget, and to keep the property tax rate the same at 4.0376 mills. This came after three straight days of budget workshops, in which department heads gave a presentation of their expected spending over the next fiscal year. There are two more votes for the Council to take to make it official, but in all likelihood, this is going to be the millage rate, and the budget is not going to change too dramatically. The 2019-2020 General Fund stands at $50.3 million – and there are $10.1 million in reserves, which represents a pretty healthy position.
And according to the draft budget document, Apopka sees no obstacles in the near future. In a section entitled “Factors Affecting Financial Condition”, the budget states:
“The City has been experiencing an economic upturn consistent with other areas of the county. The local economy strongly benefits from its proximity to Orlando and related employment opportunities. The 2018 unemployment rate for the Apopka area was 3.2% compared to 3.4% for the State of Florida and 4.0% nationwide.”
It also states that the City of Apopka provides good services and competitive tax rates.
“Apopka’s standards for services are considered excellent and its tax rates compare favorably to other areas. A stable growth rate for many recurring revenue sources, combined with an abundance of developable land and a stable local building industry, provide continued expansion of the City’s revenue base.”
It goes on to forecast population growth with multiple housing developments coming to Apopka now and in the foreseeable future.
“Currently, the City has approximately 813 platted lots available for construction. There are numerous builders and developers who are in the process of developing those lots or in the process of developing them in the near future. It is expected that future residential and commercial construction will continue to have a major impact on the City. Increases in revenue from the associated utility taxes, franchise fees, and intergovernmental revenues can be directly related to increases in population. Revenue from licenses and permits is also expected to remain stable.”
Overall, it appears to be a stable budget with nothing but promising potential on the horizon. So why does it still sound like Apopka is in a rebuilding period?
Mayor Bryan Nelson used a lot of nautical metaphors in describing the experience of crafting the 2019-2020 fiscal budget.
“We’ve had every thumb and finger and toe plugging holes in the boat, and now we’ve got a bucket and we’re throwing water over the bow,” said Nelson. “And I think to a point we’re making progress. It’s still not going to be a two or three-year plan, it’s going to be a 5-7 year plan to get everything sustainable… everything kind of where we want it. And most of our wants covered… and all of our needs for the most part.”
Another nautical description comes to mind when reviewing this budget – treading water.
A few months ago, Nelson hosted a workshop on homelessness at City Hall facilitated by the Pollis Institute. During the event, one of the speakers asked an interesting question:
“What is the biggest thing that has happened in Apopka in the last five years?”
The audience struggled, but then mentioned the Northwest Recreation Complex, the splash pad, and Nelson’s election. I would also include the beginning of the City Center, the Alonzo Williams Community Center, and the improvements made to the Wastewater Treatment Facility, although none of those are completed.
It’s not an inspiring list of accomplishments or even projects in the pipeline, especially for a municipality that is in such great fiscal condition, according to its own budget, but there is an even bigger question about Apopka’s future.
“Bare Bones. Austerity. A 5-7 year plan. You’re going to see that in the near future… unfortunately, in this budget, we just don’t have the money.”
Over the course of four budget cycles, these are the descriptions used to describe the state of fiscal affairs in Apopka. And obviously that spans over two different administrations; so this is not a critique aimed specifically at this Council, but rather a call to action.
And this is the call that Commissioner Kyle Becker is getting from the community:
“I hear a lot of will-be’s and coming soons,” said Becker during the budget workshops. “But the feeling I get from residents here is that they’re just hungry for what’s next in Apopka.”
What is next for Apopka? There is no need in looking backwards at the last five years, let’s look forward. What is the biggest thing that WILL happen in Apopka in the NEXT five years?
When will it be the season to take advantage of this growing economy and build a city with more amenities to compete with nearby cities while it is experiencing an increasing revenue base, a booming population expansion, and economic growth?
Is Apopka really 5-7 years away?
It’s clear that this budget is basically signed, sealed, and delivered, however there is one action that could still be taken that could have a dramatic change in Apopka’s immediate future.
In order to compete with local municipalities, Apopka needs an economic development department.
Take a look at the websites of cities that border Apopka, and you will see that most all of them have either an economic development director, manager, or department, and some have budgeted hundreds of thousands of dollars for the advancement of economic development in their municipality.
Apopka may be the second-largest city in Orange County, and the fastest-growing in population, but most cities around it are also growing rapidly and competing for economic commerce – both to bring in new business to its community and to keep the existing businesses it has.
Economic development directors have a strategic focus. They are pro-active. They study market trends and apply their expert judgment to opportunities and threats facing the local economy.
The Apopka Area Chamber of Commerce and the UCF Apopka Business Incubator are key components to economic development in Apopka. Chamber President Robert Agrusa, and Incubator Site Manager Rick Parks play a huge role in improving business in Apopka, but they should be working alongside an economic development department, not be an alternative.
An economic development director can harness the potential of every component in Apopka’s arsenal to keep pace with the tremendous growth it is experiencing. It would put Apopka on a level playing field when it gets down to municipalities competing for a business looking at relocation, or start-ups looking for their home.
Becker has championed this idea since being elected to the Council in 2016. But last Wednesday, there appeared to be a hint of daylight for it in a presentation at both the budget workshop and later at the City Council meeting.
“There is some funding for economic development,” said Apopka City Administrator Edward Bass. “We have $100,000 earmarked for services and part of that is for economic development.”
“Ultimately not what I’m seeking, but…” Becker replied.
“It’s not a position,” said Bass. “If that’s the will of the Council we’d have to do some changes and eliminate something, but we do have $100,000 funded that could be used for that purpose.”
Later at the Council meeting, Becker returned to the topic.
“You said we have $100,000 allocated for it. I’ve always wanted to have it (an economic development director) in house. It doesn’t have to be a director-level position. It could be funded for three-quarters of the year starting January 1st. That would get you to the $100,000 mark. Factor in a base salary and benefits. But there’s also potential for that person to serve in multiple roles – economic director, and also to leverage our assets, like the amphitheater, so I would really be interested in allocating the funds for something like that.”
The Apopka Voice supports Becker in this modest move to better compete with local municipalities for economic market share in the area. A robust effort to present Apopka in the brightest of lights that it deserves would more than pay for an economic development director. It is an investment in the community’s future that it can easily afford.