By Reggie Connell/Managing Editor of The Apopka Voice
Dr. Ray Shackelford is an Apopka resident who can best be described as a vocal proponent of issues that involve Apopka. He is a consistent speaker during public comments, writes letters to the editors, and even staged a sit-in at City Hall in 2015 when he was kept out of a meeting he believed he should be allowed to attend.
And when it comes to the budget and a 25% reserve in the City of Apopka's General Fund, he is a full-throated voice crying out in the wilderness.
"I think it's important that we become sensitive as to how we spend our tax money," Shackelford told the Council at its October 18th meeting. "I know we're sitting fine with the enterprise funds, but that does not give us the right to spend tax money any way we want to spend it. I call upon this City Council to develop a strategic plan for a 25% (general) fund balance within five years."
For the past two budget cycles, the Apopka City Council has spent in the neighborhood of 40-plus hours debating the ins-and-outs of the fiscal budgets for 2016-17 and 2017-18. City staff, department heads, the City Administrator, and Finance Director all weighed-in. The discussions were spirited, substantive, and oftentimes exhaustive.
And at the end of the process, a budget was crafted, reserves were determined, and millage rates were set. But it was also clear that two City Commissioners were not entirely happy with the outcome - Doug Bankson and Billie Dean.
Bankson has argued the minority opinion on this issue for the 18 months he has been on the City Council. He wrote editorials on the merits of a 25% reserve, and he voted against both budgets. Dean has also been an opponent of certain parts of the budget - in particular the reserves.
During the City Commission portion of the meeting, Dean echoed Shackelford's words.
“I propose that the City Council develop a strategic plan to obtain a 25% fund in the next five years," Dean said. "We must protect the fiscal integrity of the city.”
Commissioner Kyle Becker responded to Dean's proposal.
"My question is who is going to do that walk for us? Who’s going to walk year-by-year to get us to that 25% mark? Who’s going to formulate that proposal?"
"This is a City Council responsibility," responded Dean. "So I would assume we would select someone to perform this function."
Becker then referenced a proposal presented to the Council by Bankson.
"Commissioner Bankson I know that gave a Power Point presentation during the budget workshop, but I think from a financial perspective if we’re trying to step up to a 25% mark, a year-over-year walk as to how we get there is what I perceived we lacked. And to see that would be helpful in saying 'yes this is how we can get to that mark'.
Bankson reminded the Council that his proposal was to trigger a discussion on the merits of a bigger reserve.
"Again, that is just the policy of where we need to get to. And that’s up for discussion. Where do we want to set that number?" Bankson said. "There is no policy in place, and that hurts us to have no policy. This is a necessity and we have to find a way to get there... and giving a window for us to do that is partly done with staff and the understanding we’re giving them a directive. This also puts us in position not only for a healthy reserve, but also for investment opportunities that come along.
He also explained why the proposal is set in general terms.
"I understand this is not laid out specific. It’s designed to give us flexibility as to what we will be facing in the coming years. But this holds our feet to the fire as to getting there... so it will be a collaboration I’d say as to getting our thoughts together, and we can say to staff that this is a policy and we need to aim at this goal, and make our decisions based on that benchmark."
"Do we have anything in black-and-white text that we can look at and make a decision on? Becker asked. "Until we have that we are just talking aspirational."
"It’s like when you’re rolling off a cliff," Bankson said. "When you’re rolling you’re not off, but what can we do to make sure we don’t go off? We need a game plan to keep from falling off the cliff. It’s an aspirational goal, yes, but it’s a healthy goal."
Midway through the debate, Mayor Joe Kilsheimer pointed out that this was a recurring subject that had been settled through the budgeting process.
"We keep going around in circles here, and clearly everybody can see how everyone feels. Clearly we know how you (Bankson) feel. We know how Commissioner Dean feels, but I don’t hear a consensus from the City Council to move forward with this. This City Council has talked about this. We talked about it at the budget workshops. And we’re talking about it here (at City Council meetings) on more than one occasion. I don’t hear a consensus to move forward, and it comes back meeting after meeting. We keep going around in circles. If a more compelling argument than the ones that are being presented now, maybe we would move this agenda forward. But to date, a compelling argument has not persuaded the majority of the City Council to move forward on the proposal that’s been put forward. Right now the scale is tipped towards leaving the policy in place."
"There is no policy," said Bankson.
"The absence of the policy is a policy," said Kilsheimer. "We don’t have one because the City Council does not favor establishing that policy."
Commissioner Diane Velazquez believes that the focus of the budget should be on keeping the City moving forward, and she had strong words for Bankson.
"I’m going to go back to the budget. We spent 19 hours on it, and I just feel you (Bankson) forsaked the budget. This is the second year that you voted no because you’re holding that a 25% reserve is more important than running the City.
"That’s a mischaracterization," said Bankson.
"No, that’s what you’re doing," said Velazquez. "You voted no, so it’s no."
"Well I can say that you were ignoring the future needs of the City," said Bankson.
"No, I’m not ignoring the future," said Velazquez.
Rarely does the issue of budgets, reserves, or how to spend the Apopka taxpayer's money come up that passion does not ensue among the City Council. But the reality is the 2017-18 budget is etched in stone, and it's unlikely that the reserves debate will gain additional traction with this City Council.
On the other hand, Apopka is approximately five months away from choosing a brand new City Council, with a Mayoral election, and two City Commission seats up for grabs, which means that brand new ideas about the budget, reserves, and spending priorities coming to the Council are a strong possibility.
Because of the importance of this issue... arguably the most important that faces the City Council, The Apopka Voice asked every candidate running for office, or incumbent commissioners who will be a part of the 2018 City Council their thoughts on the proposed 25% reserve mark for the general fund of the Apopka budget.
Do they favor the approach? If so, what would they be willing to cut to get there? Which departments or amenities would they be willing to underfund? Would they raise taxes in order to get to that reserve? Or do they think it might happen through natural growth?
In Part Two of The Budget Debates, The Apopka Voice gets three commissioners on the record who will very likely be a part of the next budget process - Doug Bankson, Kyle Becker, and Diane Velazquez. Bankson and Becker do not face a challenge to their seats until 2020, and Velazquez is currently running unopposed for Seat #2.
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