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A 21% increase in tax base is the perfect time to move Apopka forward

City Council: This budget cycle make Fire, Police, and South Apopka your priority

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Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson made a surprise announcement about the upcoming budget at the June 1st City Council meeting.

"Some good news today," Nelson said. "We just got our tax base for next year's tax base to work towards budgets, and trust me... we've got a lot of needs. [But] just so everyone knows, our tax base as of the fiscal year 2021-22 was $4.2 billion... this year, it's $5.1 billion - a 21% increase in property values. So the taxes generated will be a net increase of $3.7 million... so we've got $3.7 million additional to spend this year on our budget, but inflation will take a big hit out of that. But at this point, I wanted to share [the news] with everyone."

That has a guarded, yet optimistic tone to it.

Barring a pandemic, market crash, CAT-5 hurricane, sudden urge to break the world record for lowest millage rate, or unforeseen issue occurring between now and the July budget workshops, the Council has a modest windfall of $3.7 million to put in the direction of the FY22-23 budget. That is cause for celebration, and thanks Mayor Nelson for announcing it well ahead of the budget workshops.

I'm hoping the fact that you announced it means you plan on utilizing that $3.7 million. But pardon me, if I too am a bit guarded. Over the last seven budget cycles I've covered, I've heard many reasons why Council had to cut spending and not invest in the growth Apopka is experiencing.

  • It has to be bare-bones this cycle
  • Spending is not sustainable
  • There could be hurricanes
  • We're in a pandemic
  • The taxpayers need relief
  • We have to pay back borrowed money
  • We need to build reserves

Apopka continues to grow in population and now in tax base, but tells its department heads to create wish lists, spend like it's your mother's money, and go one more year understaffed. The proverbial 'wait until next year' plan.

Here is part of the editorial The Apopka Voice published last year when the budget debate was over $400,000 and one-tenth of a millage rate drop:

"Having the lowest millage rate in the area is great. Having the highest reserves in all the land is great too. It may even be the fiscally responsible thing to do depending on the state of your municipality. But, like everything else, there is a limit. And at some point, it can be counter-productive and simply the wrong approach to manage a City when it is in a growth spurt and in need of forward-looking investments to match what is happening.

In FY-2020/21, the City of Apopka received federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act in the ballpark of $7-million once it's all in hand. It received $2.9-million in a Duke Energy settlement. It sold land. It offered up prime real estate at bargain-basement pricing in a trade to help a community buy a closed golf course. It purchased Camp Wewa for $4.7 million.

By all accounts, it's made some moves; so why is it slamming the brakes? Now is the time to prepare Apopka for the growth it is going to inevitably experience."

I stand by those words for the FY21/22 budget and published them again this cycle because they apply even more.

There are a lot of departments, and issues in Apopka that need to be addressed after years of cutting budgets and lowering millage rates. But here are three priorities I would suggest the City Council consider in the upcoming workshops:

Start the process to put three firefighters on the AFD fire engines and tower trucks

This was hotly debated in the 2021-22 budget workshops, and the 2022 election. But in the end, Apopka Fire Chief Sean Wylam confirmed that if it were in the budget, he would want three firefighters on the AFD apparatus, and gave an amount he estimated it would cost.

"If you wanted to add a third person to each engine and a tower truck, it's probably $2.5 million just in salaries," Wylam said, and went on to explain his plan would include it in the future.

"This is an ongoing process that I want to start," he said. "Starting with six this year (three new firefighters, and three district chiefs). The number I gave you [$2.5 million] is to hire 45. So, it's a large number to get us to that growth moving forward."

That amount should not scare the Council from figuring out a way to give firefighters the security of an extra firefighter on the engines and tower truck. And with the additional $3.7 million, this is the budget to begin that process.

Build a hiring plan that gets the Apopka Police Department to 2.5 officers per 1,000 residents before it's too late

Apopka is growing, but growth comes with challenges such as having enough officers to properly protect the city. The Apopka Police Department has not kept up with the rising population. During the FY21-22 budget workshops, Apopka Police Chief Michael McKinley made that point crystal clear.

“In 2010, there were 15,707 households in Apopka," McKinley said during his presentation. "In 2020 the number increased to 19,920," said McKinley. "This represents a 26.8% increase in the number of households. The 2010 census showed a population in Apopka of 41,542 residents. In April 2020, the city of Apopka Community Development Department estimated the population of Apopka at 53,632 residents. This is an increase of 12,090 residents from 2010. This represents a 29.1% increase in our residential population in 10 years. Based on the increase in residents over this 10 year period, the APD should have hired approximately 26 officers.”

In the fiscal year 2016/17 budget, the APD was at 108 sworn officers. The department remained at 108 until FY-2019/20 when it expanded to 112. However, those four positions were in response to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Act, which effectively took four officers off the streets and put them into the Apopka schools as SRO's (School Resource Officers), thus making the additional four officers more of a break-even prospect.

This means the APD has not added to its sworn officer total since FY-2016/17 coming into the FY 21/22 budget.

According to McKinley, the state average for police departments was 2.43 officers per 1,000 and the local average of the listed agencies was 2.39. Due to the city's growth in 2020, the APD fell from a per capita 2.14 in 2019 to 2.09 officers per 1,000 residents in 2020. This equates to a drop in three officers per capita in just one year.

The time is now to put the APD on a path to 2.5 officers per 1,000 residents. Any hesitation in this area given the population growth Apopka is experiencing could leave the APD understaffed for years to come.

Set funding aside for annexing South Apopka

It is, at a minimum, disappointing to see the issue of annexing South Apopka dissolve from priority to apathy on the City Council. But as the image of the 2022 election gets smaller in their rearview mirror, and the budget cycle gets closer, this subject seems to be falling off a cliff.

Yes, Nelson made reference to a late May, early June date for an annexation workshop.

Yes, Commissioner Alexander H. Smith called for a commission to study South Apopka annexation at the May 4th meeting.

Yes, Commissioner Nick Nesta followed-up on Smith's request at the May 18th City Council meeting.

But no, there has been no workshop scheduled, committee announced, or action taken on Nesta's followup. At the June 1st meeting, there was no mention of South Apopka annexation at all. It's as if this was, once again, a hot topic during the election, but not a priority when it's time to govern.

But I refuse to believe that is the case.

I take Mayor Nelson at his word when he says if the Council makes it a priority, that he will hold a workshop on annexing South Apopka. I take Commissioner Smith at his word when he said these words on May 4th:

"Annexation is a topic that is not going anywhere and needs to be addressed. My recommendation is for the city to appoint a committee to begin serious negotiations with the County and the residents in the unincorporated areas of Apopka. It's time for Apopka to become united rather than divided down the middle of a road. A price tag should not be put on the quality of life or be the determining factor whether to annex or not. Do the human thing, which is the right thing, by annexing and investing in all of Apopka. A true "One Apopka" should be our goal!"

I take Commissioners Nesta and Velazquez at their word when they made annexing South Apopka a priority in their campaigns. Now is the time to renew that priority.

Nelson estimated it would take $3 million in first year costs to annex South Apopka. What better year to make a good faith down payment towards annexation than a year when the tax base increases 21%?

How often is $3.7 million going to parachute into the City's coffers like this? Now is the time to prepare Apopka for the growth it is ALREADY experiencing!

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