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A budget should be more than a bill paying exercise

Give the City Council options to move Apopka forward


The more things change, the more they stay the same."

--Jon Bon Jovi

When I go to a restaurant, I open a menu and decide which appetizers, sides, main course, and dessert I want. I don't choose everything on the menu, but I want to know my options. I carefully check the prices and make sure I have enough money to pay for what I want and  that it's appropriately priced.

In contrast, I don't have a server tell me I have $10 to spend, no menu to review, and for that amount, I can get liver and onions, but if I want to make any changes, they better be minor.

That's the treatment the Apopka City Council receives during the budget process.

At its July 27th meeting, the Council voted 5-0 to set a millage rate of 4.1876. The vote preceded three days of budget workshops.

According to City Administrator Edward Bass, the general fund is at $64.2 million, which was $5.7 million over the previous year's budget - a 9.84% increase. 

In the 2021/22 budget, the general fund was at $58.5 million, which was $6.1 million over the previous year - an 11.6% increase. The millage rate was at 4.1876, the same as this budget.

A budget and millage rate  etched in stone

A lot has changed in Apopka, but a lot has stayed the same - namely, the millage rate and the budget. It seems to be virtually etched in stone even before it's approved.

Apopka, for good or bad, is treading water, and there is no reason to expect anything different anytime soon. It takes care of department needs with as little funding as possible. It rubs nickels and dimes together and pinches pennies. That would be admirable if every department was fully funded and staffed, the city was on a glide path for the future, and it met all the city's needs, but we all know, that's not the case.

Apopka only looks to the future for inevitable things like a public safety center or wastewater treatment facilities, and its system almost guarantees this outcome. 

Wash, rinse, dry and repeat...

For too many cycles, there has been a static rhythm to budget workshops that goes something like this:

  • City staff and administration tentatively set a millage rate before the City Council gets to interact.
  • At the workshops, each department head presents a budget to the City Council that appears to be pre-cut of anything additional and fits into the tentative millage rate.
  • The City Council listens to each department head and asks questions but rarely pushes them to add anything to its budget.  They are, afterall, not the experts of  those departments.
  • After the department heads conclude their presentations, the City Administrator presents the entire budget. He points out that it balances at the tentative millage rate they pre-set, and the amount - also pre-set.
  • The Council, with no practical options except to approve the budget/millage rate as is or possibly add a minor item or modest millage increase, votes to approve. 
  • There is no discussion about visioning or planning for the future.

At that point, there is only the option to blow up months of work, raise the millage rate to an unreasonable level, or accept the pre-packaged budget and millage rate - which is always the way it goes.

Wash, rinse, dry, and repeat in the next budget cycle.

A debate over  one-tenth of a mill

Last budget season, I watched the City Council debate the difference between a millage rate of 4.2876 and 4.1876. Rather than keep approximately $400,000 and invest it in any number of needs, they lowered the millage rate one-tenth of a mill and gave Apopka taxpayers a rebate of roughly $20 each.

This process turns a mole hill-size discussion like one-tenth of a mill into a mountainesque Lincoln-Douglas debate because there is nothing else on the table left to institute change or move Apopka forward.

In this budget, there was little to no mention of issues like annexing South Apopka, adding additional personnel to fire engines or a plan for economic development. As has been the case for years, this budget looked more like someone sitting down to pay their bills and ensuring their checking account balances at the end.

Annexing South Apopka, adding firefighters to the appraratus, and economic development were three of the most significant issues during the election cycle.

But make no mistake, Apopka; election cycles and budget workshops are two very different discussions.

A different approach

I've read a lot of municipal budgets these past few weeks, and it's in stark contrast to Apopka's approach. Other cities write about the goals they've completed over the past year, then look FAR into the future at potential projects. It doesn't mean they go on a spending spree and cripple their taxpayers with unnecessary amenities for their community, but they spend time visioning for their future needs and putting plans in motion.

It's time for Apopka to introduce a different plan.

Let's start with the concept that a budget starts at zero, and works its way through the City's needs and investments into the future until it's complete. It still allows the Council to focus on a low millage rate and reserves if they choose, but it also shows them every option available to move Apopka forward.

On day one of the workshops, every department head begins by presenting a comprehensive budget of everything  needed to run their department properly. Not just for the coming year, but future expenditures as well.

Instead of being a ceremonial rubber stamp, the City Council would determine what is a need, what is a want, what is for the future, and what gets cut.

After the department heads finish, there would be a new feature to close the workshops. A feature that would be beneficial to visioning. An aspect that is lacking in the way Apopka constructs its budget.

Strategy, Planning and Innovation

Many municipalities throughout the country utilize departments, divisions, or  individuals to head up discussions about their community's strategy, planning, and innovation. This department or person would assist city leaders in defining its vision, setting goals, and developing strategies to meet those goals. It could also design, manage and deliver ideas, identify resources for data analysis, engage with neighbors to hear their feedback, design and test solutions to improve experiences, and measure performance to improve efficiency.

This  process would be designed to give Apopka a roadmap five, 10, and 25 years into its future.

Parts of it would be unattainable. Parts of it would be for future budgets. Other parts would be implemented in the coming years, while other parts the City could pull the trigger on in its current budget.

It takes visioning and planning to do big things like annexing South Apopka, bringing a university or even a YMCA to town, adding firefighters to an apparatus, or building a robust economy filled with fine dining and a city center  worth bragging about beyond the ceremonial groundbreakings.

Moving Apopka into its inevitable future will never happen under the current plan of budgeting. The Apopka City Council will continue to tread water until it decides not to. It's time to take off the training wheels and let this diverse, creative group of leaders have more options to build this great city beyond the current budget year.

Apopka, Apopka City Council, Apopka City Budget, South Apopka, Apopka Fire Engines, Economic development, Visioning


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