Good morning commissioners. How are you doing today? You're probably taking a final glance at the agenda packet for your meeting this afternoon, but I would like to turn your attention to the budget hearing you will be at later in the day.
You have an opportunity to shift funding in the 2022/23 budget to cover three areas that I hope you agree are priorities for Apopka's safety, equity, well-being, and future progress.
Yes, you've voted on the millage rate and the budget amount. You've done the heavy lifting. But there are a few more critical issues to be ironed out that might make this a budget that everyone can get behind.
According to City Administrator Edward Bass and Commissioner Doug Bankson, this budget's general fund reserve estimate is around $15 million... about 25% of the general fund.
Reserves are a vital part of a healthy municipal budget. It guarantees security in case of a fiscal emergency. Bankson has also said over the years that Apopka can utilize it for opportunities that may present themselves during the year - like Camp Wewa in 2021.
But in 2022, I believe both emergency and opportunity are present in Apopka, and the City Council should deal with it in this budget. Now is the time to invest a small percentage of those reserves in Apopka., and here are the three areas I think it should invest in.
I urge you to fully staff the AFD with safety and training officers and transition to three firefighters on the apparatus. It has been discussed in two consecutive budget cycles, but now is the time to make this a reality. The time to talk about "a staged process", or "slowly working toward" these goals is over. The funding is available to bring this department up to the standards of comparable departments, and the commissioners should act.
Michael Duran, the father of deceased firefighter Austin Duran, recently posted this statement on local social media about staffing, training, and safety at the AFD:
"This is the result of NOT properly funding the AFD," Duran said. "I encourage the residents of Apopka to remind your city leaders how important life is for our AFD and to all they serve. We do not and can not afford under-trained, understaffed personnel to be ill-equipped to serve our city. My son lost his life in direct connection to a lack of training, safety, and supervision. Who is next? Who will be the next firefighter, or will it be a resident? When will City leadership step up and rebuild a department that can be a model department that refuses the idea of losing the lives of their personnel? I have asked. And Austin says NOW."
Annexing South Apopka was also a hot topic in the summer of 2021 and into the political cycle. It became a core issue among the candidates running for the city commission. But so far, the most action taken on this subject was a request for a South Apopka Annexation committee to be formed to study the idea and present its findings in a future workshop.
To date, the committee is unformed, and annexation remains a political topic that dissolves the day after the oath of office ceremony.
That may seem harsh, commissioners, so here is a chance to prove me wrong. As a show of good faith, call for a budget to be attached to this committee to research this issue and then create the committee properly.
The time is now for a member of the city commission to again call for an economic developer to take the reins of attracting business to Apopka.
A mayor, particularly in a strong mayor form of government, is the CEO of the city. They have department heads that manage the day-to-day operations and a city administrator to oversee all the departments.
Certainly, an economic development director/department paired with a savvy mayor has a better shot at success than a lone mayor running the entire city and taking on economic development simultaneously.
Most successful cities with comparable populations have an economic development department. It's time Apopka follows suit.
There are a lot of good, positive steps taken in this budget. We should commend the City Council, Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson, Bass, and the City Staff for their efforts in creating this plan for Apopka in the coming year.
Bass concluded his budget message with this statement:
"Last fiscal year, we invested time and resources into expanding our economic development efforts, planning for the future, and keeping our community safe. This year we will continue to focus on economic development, sustainability, and community safety as these proactive measures will position us for future success.
Balancing our valuable employees' needs and keeping in mind the financial impact that our residents are facing, the Fiscal Year 2022-2023 budget is balanced using a combination of reserves and no increase in the property tax rate. We believe this budget represents a sound financial and operating plan that addresses Apopka's priorities while continuing to provide an outstanding level of service our residents have come to expect. In order to maintain our high quality of life, Apopka is focused on making public safety a priority as well as investing in critical infrastructure needs. We look forward to working with the City Council and the public to build a strong financial base and continue to make Apopka one of the finest communities in which to live, work and play."
I agree with the priorities listed in the budget's concluding statement. I support economic development efforts, planning for the future, keeping the community safe, and using reserves to offset millage rate hikes. But, I also want to see a comprehensive effort to tackle all of those issues with the funds available in this budget. I'm calling on you, the city commissioners, to make this happen.
The modest amount of funding moving from reserves into these vital areas will be well worth the investment.
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