Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson and Commissioner Kyle Becker stood toe-to-toe on the stage Monday night at the Apopka Community Center in what may be their only mayoral debate. Well, in reality, they sat behind tables on the stage and fielded questions from Joel Silver, the out-of-town moderator, who asked the two candidates 13 questions in a little over 67 minutes. Silver is the CEO of Silver Digital Media.
Before a live crowd of almost 300, an overflow audience at the nearby Victory Church, and hundreds more watching on live stream at home and at watch parties across the community, the two candidates for mayor of Apopka illustrated the stark differences in their approach to leading Apopka into the future.
The debate was sponsored by the Apopka Area Chamber of Commerce.
In this three-part series, The Apopka Voice will analyze every aspect of this fascinating debate, and today the issues of grants as they apply to the budget, the Station Street RFP, the City's role in the defunct golf courses at Errol Estate and Rock Springs Ridge, and the Apopka City Center take center stage.
Silver asked Nelson about his success in getting grants for the City in 2021.
"Man, we've done great this year. We've got money from the federal budget, we've got a $1 million appropriation in the federal budget this year, if it gets passed, to help the water plant," Nelson said. "We got a $5 million matching grant to help us take some package plants away for trailer parks so that we can meet our BMAP. We've got a million-dollar grant for Camp Wewa, and we've got $250,000 for taking septic tanks out of Camp Wewa and converting them over to sewer. We haven't done as well in police and fire but when you got to a fire department that's rated over 100... when they're looking at these... grants are looking at fire departments that are struggling. Our fire department isn't struggling so we don't need... I mean, we'd love to have it and we could we could make use of it... but when you're sitting at 100 on a scale of 1 to 100, how much better can you get? We are really on all cylinders. There's a lot of money out there that we need to get. So we've done very, very well this year in grant funding for our city."
But Becker is concerned that the hope of grant funding is replacing the hard work of building a budget, especially when the grant does not come through.
"Kudos to the staff for getting as much as we got - $15 million, I think in the last year," Becker said. "But too often we go into a budget and we're relying on grant funding for the stuff that we should have been already purchasing a year, or two years ago. I saw where my opponent's mailpiece recently said that we budgeted 10 police officers and six firefighters, which is a misrepresentation of fact; we didn't budget for them. They were seeking grant opportunities for those positions at the time of budget approval. Those grants, none of them came through... so we had to do an appropriation through request and fund those out of the general fund reserve balance. My posture on grants is that we should know what our costs are going to be over a two to five year horizon and be actively going after those grants in a proactive manner. Yes, $15 million sounds like a very large amount. And it is. But how provocative would it sound if we tried to fund our entire general fund through grant funding, not to say that would happen, but if we're trying to hit 100% of the grants that we apply for, let's go for $100 million. And if we get the same percentage, we can double the amount of grants that we get. But, grant funding should be after you've gone through those grants based off your two to five year horizon. Then if you can't do it, that's when you bake it into your budget."
Nelson also illustrated the efforts put in by the staff in order to get a $5 million grant with only three days to apply.
"You can't get grants based on just that you want to fund it," he said. "You have to have it in the five year work plan. So these grants, like the police officers and firefighters... if we have them in our budget, you can't get the grant. I mean, it's pretty simple. The $5 million... we had three days to put together a proposal. My team worked really, really hard to put that together to get the $5 million with three days. So there are times when an opportunity comes up... the Camp Wewa purchase, we had to go back... we got a retroactive ... the million dollars for that. Who knew Camp Wewa was gonna drop into our lap? If we had to enter the finances to buy that we'd be sitting there looking at houses on Sheppard Lake."
But Becker was looking beyond the plan for the previous budget.
"You're assuming that our deal was only six firefighters," he said. "Our five year work plan for our fire department was not only six firefighters... our five year work plan would show a ramp-up so that we can properly staff our apparatus. So of course, I'm not going to go for just six. Whereas they say, oh, there's already six in your plan. My plan would probably be 30 more firefighters. But it's well above what we would have planned. And thank you for saying that Camp Wewa fell into our lap."
The Apopka City Council voted 5-0 at its January 19th meeting to reject the proposal of Standard Investments and Holdings LLC to create a downtown Apopka mixed-use project consisting of retail, office, and/or residential development using 3.4 acres of property purchased from the City. The RFP, (Request for Proposal) was an invitation for qualified developers to bid on the project, however, only one proposal was received.
Silver asked Becker why he voted against this project. Becker voiced multiple objections.
"So, the RFP process is a unique one versus other city business sectors," he said. "We've talked about developing the Station Street area, which is adjacent to this building, for many years now. Back in 2018, when my opponent was elected, his staff had committed to get an RFP out to the street in December 2018, which slipped to 2019-Q1. And fast forward to August 2021. We all know that this has to anchor the success of our downtown area down to the city center development. My concern was that after all this time, we had one RFP response, staff was not able to articulate to me all of the activities that they had done to drum up interest on this prior to the cone of silence. We had one bid come back. And the bid that came in had donors who were maximum contributors to my opponent's campaign. In fact, one had hosted a major fundraiser at this house in Winter Park. And so when you have one RFP, combined with that, combined with the concept that they didn't divulge during our council meeting, even though the cone of silence in our RFP stopped at the beginning of that meeting, they could have voiced what they were trying to do and that concept, but it was never done. And so I voiced my concern, because I want to make sure that the residents of Apopka feel like we have a process that's fair, and on the up-and-up in principle. And so I used my principles to voice a motion to reject the bid. It was unanimously voted on to reject, including my opponent. There was no advocacy for that RFP by my opponent. And it's not to say that that's done... that RFP can go back out to the street, I would hope that it will. And I hope that we advocate for the best possible outcome, and that would be a multiple bid situation."
Nelson pushed back on Becker's assertion. He even expressed concern that Apopka would look bad in a business publication in Central Florida.
"Well, let's say this... that the commissioners... we always give them the opportunity to meet with staff about what's coming up at the next Council meeting, and for last year, the Commissioner doesn't think that's worthy of sitting in with the staff. So they meet with staff about the RFP. And it wasn't about the RFP folks, this was the opportunity for them to go to negotiate with Tony Benge... yes, he donated to my campaign. But that was for him to be able to negotiate with our team. That's all that was, if we didn't like the opportunity that was given to us by Tony Benge, then we could have rejected it. So to say that you rejected the opportunity to negotiate a single bid because... we have a brownfield designation on that property, which means that the value of money becomes much more important because you can't borrow against brownfield properties. So we've lost that opportunity, and we're going to look like fools when it comes to the Orlando Business Journal because we didn't take at least the opportunity to come back with a proposal that we could accept or reject."
"You rejected it too," said Becker, in reference to Nelson's vote against the RFP.
Silver asked Nelson about the defunct golf courses at Errol Estate and Rock Springs, and what the city's role should be. Nelson spoke of a plan for both that he hopes can still be successful.
"I don't want to get involved in defunct ones... I want to get involved in operating ones," he said. "When I first got elected, Errol and Rock Springs Ridge were both struggling and so I'm just trying to make an opportunity there for the homeowners to get the property back, get the the golf course back, and have enough development around it to make that work for the communities. For Errol Estate, I had a deal... had the sellers taken the deal, we could have gotten 200 homes not impacting the backyards of people and yet had a golf course. We did a lot of work and a lot of folks were helping me design this plan... looking at the financials, the spreadsheets. We had a plan that would have worked for Errol and we had a plan to work for Rock Springs Ridge. So we hope to get it back. We hope we can get the Golf Group to come back and negotiate with us on the property in Rock Springs Ridge, and we hope the Klein family will come to their senses and make a deal that we can have that golf course back with a clubhouse, pool, tennis courts and something that they'd be proud of."
But Becker went back to a proposal Nelson made in 2021 to the residents of Rock Springs Ridge.
"My opponent decided to, unilaterally, on April 27th of last year... tout the aspect of doing a land swap and a tri-party agreement with the Golf Group and the HOA of Rock Springs Ridge. Even so much as having a piece of paper outlining the financials around it [a $6,000 leaseback to the HOA while the City possessed it]. Every single public hearing since then he's walked-back that position. He said that he never supported the land swap, never supported a tri-party agreement. One of the benefits of COVID is that all of our proceedings now are on YouTube. I really encourage you to go out and look at those videos. Rock Springs Ridge? The City shouldn't be in the business of running and operating golf courses. Rock Springs Ridge... I've given a full commitment that I'm gonna honor their PUD, which is currently standing. And that's my commitment and always has been."
For years, Apopka residents have been frustrated with the slow progress of the Apopka City Center. Silver asked Nelson what could be done to speed that process up. Nelson responded by announcing upcoming groundbreaking events.
"I didn't sign the first agreement," he said. "And so we were trying to work our way through the agreement that was was not very well written. And it was obviously voted on by my opponent. So you know, we gave them 10 years to do something... that's a long time. So what we were able to do? Because they needed something with a fountain in the back, we were able to shorten that time period. But just think about this folks. My opponent sold the Highland Manor for $300,000. That is the crown jewel of Apopka and he voted in that agreement to sell the Highland Manor for $300,000. I can't get that back. Now it's good... it is extremely successful. The hotel is just kicking it on all eight cylinders. The restaurant... I was talking to them today. They liked the concept that they could do the rehearsal dinners there. Starbucks is excited about coming... and the food court with the brewery, we are set to explode. Winn Dixie is coming. There's one of these brand new prototype Winn Dixies that you will all be proud of. We've got lots of things happening and obviously, Thursday morning at 11 o'clock, please come on out, we've got a groundbreaking at the town center for the Starbucks and the food and brewery. So come on out eleven o'clock on Thursday."
Becker acknowledged his part in the original deal in 2016 with Taurus Southern Investments, but also made his case that more could be done to improve the process.
"I take full accountability for every single vote that I've taken on City Council," he said. "But the developer's agreement we've had with Taurus has been modified during this administration. So if there were faults in the original, there's been an opportunity for us to fix it and subsequent versions. So if we haven't chosen to do so, my opponent needs to have some accountability there as well. But also, there needs to be accountability about the vision of this project... my opponent's staff signed a piece of paper for subsidized housing to go within this particular location, saying that there was no entitlement constraints for subsidized housing to go here, even though it was very crystal clear that it was a prohibited use within that development agreement that he describes. So how does that impact what the future of the city center looks like? We don't know. But I do know that if we had an economic development that can partner alongside companies for us or others that are trying to come here, I think it would have a better outcome. But the vision has vastly changed. And we don't know what's to come, because we get claims that he didn't know about his own staff member signing a piece of paper that set in motion subsidized funding to support some residential housing in the city center area."
Nelson denied his involvement in allowing subsidized housing to be included in the city center project.
"I never agreed to subsidized housing. Orange County agreed to it. I'm not Orange County. We're the City of Apopka. So Jim Hitt's in charge of the community development, and neither one of us knew there was anything to do with subsidized housing. So that's kind of a disingenuous answer."
But Becker pushed back by saying that a member of his staff should know about this document.
"Well, I'll rebut that by saying the application from the Florida department that handles this operates in subsidized housing. Jim Hitt is a member of your staff and your the strong mayor form of government. You should know all the things that happened within your staff and signing that application basically set in motion expectations that this type of product could come to that city center, and don't mix my words, there's affordable housing needs... low income housing needs in our city. Where's the location? Is that the right anchor for our downtown commercial corridor? That's where I have a struggle. But you need to be accountable."
In part three - Growth, taxes, housing and the challenges ahead for Apopka closes out a contentious debate.
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