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Biggest Apopka stories of 2016: City approves millage rate increase and budget

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Editor’s Note: This is the 12th in a series of articles published by The Apopka Voice in 2016 that were the most noteworthy events of the year. The Apopka Voice will publish them starting Monday, December 26th and running until Sunday, January 1st. On January, 2nd we will publish a poll and let the readers decide on which story is the most impactful of the year.

A contentious, but substantive process

News Analysis

Originally Published: September 30th, 2016

By a 3-2 vote the Apopka City Council approved a millage rate of 3.7876, and its 2016-17 fiscal year budget of $104,083,516 passed by a 4-1 vote. In between those two decisions, the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) board voted 7-0 to approve its budget of $2.05 million. Those were the black and white results of the final budget hearing. However a lot of things happened during this seven month marathon to get the City Council to these results.

First read what Commissioner Diane Velazquez said about the amount of time this Council put into the budget process.

 Commissioner Diane Velazquez: ""I just wanted to add that I'm disappointed with the two commissioners who voted no, because we spent five workshops with 4-5 hours on each and we literally went page-by-page and expense-by-expense. So much time was dedicated to this not just by us but by staff... and here we are at a 3-2 vote." Commissioner Diane Velazquez: "When I expressed my disappointment, I felt there was enough time in-between (meetings) to have addressed some kind of clarification regarding budget and millage."[/caption]

“We had five budget meetings. They lasted 21 hours, 18 minutes and 17 seconds. There were 21 days between the last budget workshop and the first public hearing. There were 14 business days that City Hall was open in that period. When I expressed my disappointment, I felt there was enough time in-between to have addressed some kind of clarification regarding budget and millage… and so when we sat for the first hearing I was surprised at the vote.”

Velazquez was disappointed that the Council could not reach a 5-0 result and stand side-by-side on the final product. It appeared that's how it would go after a 5-0 consent vote at the last workshop meeting in August, and that is a valid reaction after the amount of time and effort put in.

However consent in a workshop and an official final vote are two different things in Commissioner Doug Bankson's opinion.

“All of the different points brought up were things I was in opposition to," said Bankson. But there are times when we move forward by consensus and that’s how we have to work. At our last workshop my understanding was that we would be putting all that excess back into the reserves. I was at peace with that and didn’t realize I needed to get further clarification because I thought it was clear."

Bankson is a budget hawk. In his campaign he ran primarily on fiscal responsibility, budget issues, low taxes and reserves management. It was a likely conclusion that a budget which includes raising millage rates and taking funds out of the reserve would merit a no-vote from him.

He also thought it was important to listen to the public comments before making his final decision.

Commissioner Doug Bankson: "ommisioner Doug Bankson: "My understanding was that all of the increase would go back in to the reserves so that we weren't taking them out of the reserves and it doesn't look like that's happening here so that's my concern." Commissioner Doug Bankson: "We're not any other city. We're us. We have to function as we function."[/caption]

“My understanding is that hearings are for the public to be heard. It’s not simply for us to have two times to say ‘this is what we’ve already decided’. But that through the hearings we would get added input from the citizens of whom this is their money… and then make those decisions. I did not see this as a closed event.”

Commissioner Billie Dean was also a part of the 5-0 consensus vote at the workshops, but was clearly influenced by public comments. At both meetings, Dean echoed points made by public speakers. To the very end, Dean was calling for cuts and questioning parts of the budget that were discussed in detail at the workshops. Every item he mentioned combined would represent less than one-percent of the budget, but he argued for the cuts with passion to say the least.

Mayor Joe Kilsheimer displayed passion that matched Dean both at workshops and at the two City Council meetings. He detailed the work put into this budget not only by the Council, but the effort of City staff led by City Administrator Glenn Irby and Finance Director Pamela Barclay.

“The budget as proposed by the administration... by Pam, by Glenn is the compilation of work that began last February. Our department heads submitted budgets and there were requests and we cut millions of dollars from what our department heads said they needed to operate their budget at what they consider to be a reasonable level. And let me reinforce the point that virtually all of our department heads live in the city of Apopka. They are members of this community. The majority of our department heads have worked for the City of Apopka for their entire careers, and they're not spendthrifts. They don’t come to Glenn and Pam with wild budget ideas. They come to Glenn and Pam and say ‘this is what we need to run the city responsibly’.”

Kilsheimer is a full-time mayor that works with this staff on a daily basis. In his two-and-a-half years in office, he has become fiercely loyal and protective of them. That loyalty showed up in his defense of the budget expenditures, and in his focus on Apopka's future.

Mayor Joe Kilsheimer: "All of this was worked out in the workshops." Mayor Joe Kilsheimer: "The one policy guideline I have given to staff is 'we need to be thinking about how we can set up Apopka for success'."[/caption]

“The one policy guideline I have given to staff is ‘we need to be thinking about how we can set Apopka up for success’," Kilsheimer said. "We’ve got growth coming at us. When the Wekiva Parkway opens in 2021 growth is going to hit us like a tsunami. And we need to be ready in a public safety perspective. We need to be ready in a public services perspective. That’s why one of the things we’re doing with this budget is launching construction of a new wastewater treatment plant… which in itself is a $50-million project that will take several years to construct. Not a single thing in this budget in my opinion is frivolous or unnecessary. It’s all an investment in our community. We’re investing in Apopka in order to prepare ourselves for the future. That’s why we had to swallow hard this year, and say we need to do things like build a fire station. We can’t risk our ISO-1 rating. We have to build a communications tower on the north side of town. We’ve got firefighters and police officers that when they go into a house on the north said of town they lose communication. That’s a disaster waiting to happen. And to imply that somehow we are spendthrifts is to me…I find it insulting to the staff and to the City of Apopka because it is our professionals who are coming to tell us ‘this is what we need to run our departments on a professional basis’.”

Commissioner Kyle Becker is a business analyst... he's a numbers guy. He dug deep into this 700-plus page budget like some of us would tear into a page-turning novel. He came to the City Council budget meetings comfortable with the higher millage rate, with the idea of using reserves to balance the budget and the specific expenditures of the budget. In his usual style, Becker listened to public and City Council comments, and then delivered his rebuttal to the budget's critics.

“If we don’t move in accord with our population growth and what our residents expect in service we will fail," he said. "And it is worth mentioning that our taxes are low… even at 3.7876 it’s 12% lower than Winter Garden, 33% lower than Maitland, 16% lower than Belle Isle, 15% lower than Winter Park, 71% lower than Ocoee, 75% lower than Orlando, 43% lower than Altamonte Springs, 45% lower than Longwood, 93% lower than Sanford, and 28% lower than Winter Springs… and I will tell you that we have better services than any of those I just mentioned and what that tells us is that our staff is working at a very lean rate, and very successful with the resources that they have available to them. If our employees aren’t being paid like they are in other cities, then they’re going to go to those other cities. We are going to lose talent. People are going to leave. What positions are we willing to go without if we freeze our spending? It’s not realistic in my opinion. But I get what all of you are saying. No one up here says ‘we want to spend more money’. And a lot of these things are subjective in terms of importance or whether they are vital to our city… but obviously a lot of our bigger expenditures this year go directly to public safety. Some of these things we could debate all night whether the city should be spending on the festivals or this or that, but I’m in a good place of comfort having gone through what we discussed…going through this budget page-by-page. I think that it’s in a good spot.”

Commissioner Kyle Becker: ""I think we reduced some of these costs through the workshop sessions, but I think all of us up here know it was abundantly clear we want to reduce the amount we take from reserves and we don't want to raise the millage rate unless it's absolutely necessary," Commissioner Kyle Becker: "If we don't move in accord with our population growth and what our residents expect in service, we will fail."[/caption]

Bankson saw common ground with Becker, but the reserve ratio still concerns him.

“I do agree with Commissioner Becker. There are things that have been left too long that we have to address and that’s something we cannot ignore. I’m a very fair-minded person. I believe and I was convinced there are things we cannot do without. We have to build a (communications) tower. We have to do certain things. My concern is the next few years beyond this. And this is why my sticking point is to make sure we’re looking at those reserves. We’re not any other city. We’re us. We have to function as we function. In Winter Park they have a different set of structures and resources, however they have reserves at 24.6% with a goal to reach 30%. I’d like to see us move more in that direction.”

Not everyone was in a good place after the voting concluded. Velazquez wanted unity. Bankson wanted more money put back into reserves. Dean wanted additional cuts. Many public speakers wanted the millage rate to stay the same as it was in 2015-16. No one got everything they wanted in this budget. That is usually the way a good negotiation goes.

Here is what everyone did get though.

The City Council met five times with city staff and department leaders for 20-plus hours. They went page-by-page through the budget. They argued. They debated. They agreed. They negotiated. They cut department spending in certain places, and they accepted their proposals in others. The major expenditures - public safety, additional firefighters and police officers, a fire station and a communications tower were agreed upon with unanimous support.

They also had a great debate on millage rates, reserve management and how to balance those with economic development and the future trajectory of Apopka.

And the public was given two opportunities to weigh-in, and they did so with their usual spirit and candor. City Commissioners took their thoughts seriously to the point of starting debates on the Council level that originated from a public speaker that engaged not only commissioners and the mayor, but city staff as well. In a way, the budgeting process worked exactly as it was supposed to. Consensus moved the final outcome, but no one's opinions or thoughts were discounted...and in the end the City Council passed a budget on time.

And in the oddest of ways, this budget process seemed to bond the City Council despite significant disagreement on certain issues. Read these statements by Kilsheimer and Bankson:

“We’re not perfect up here by any stretch of the imagination," said Kilsheimer. "I’m not making any claims that we’re perfect. And we will make mistakes. But we are all, in my opinion, honest people doing an honest day’s work… trying to do the best for our city as we see fit."

“I think everyone’s intention is sincere," said Bankson. I think everyone is working hard, and here we are.”

Here we are indeed.

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