By Reggie Connell/Managing Editor of The Apopka Voice
It was loud, contentious, sometimes ugly, and had the decorum of a sports bar during a Florida State-Florida football game.
Diplomacy took a holiday last night.
Apopka Mayor Joe Kilsheimer and Orange County Commissioner Bryan Nelson clashed like oil and vinegar in their first and possibly only mayoral debate at the Highland Manor that was sponsored by the Apopka Area Chamber of Commerce.
Before a passionate, partisan, and raucous crowd that never missed an opportunity to yell, scream and cheer for their candidate, Kilsheimer and Nelson pushed, shoved, punched and sparred, early and often, and couldn't agree on anything.
In a furious pace that gave candidates 60 seconds to answer and 30 seconds for rebuttal, the three-moderator team of Ryan Elijah from Fox 35 WOFL, Paul Owens of the Orlando Sentinel and Todd Wilcox from BusinessForce peppered the candidates with 23 questions in a little over one hour.
The wide range of topics included community service, redevelopment of the old Florida Hospital site, marketing Apopka to young professionals, downtown Apopka refurbishment, affordable housing, the Orlando-Apopka Airport, small business, property taxes, office space, public safety, quality of life, home rule, Amazon's headquarters, South Apopka, the Apopka UCF Business Incubator, inclusiveness, the "good old boy" system, red light cameras and medical marijuana.
The first dustup between the two men came only seven minutes into the debate, and perhaps the most contentious subject of the night - the Apopka budget and management of the general fund reserves.
"We've got to get the budget under control," said Nelson. "We've gone from $41-million in reserves down to $3-million. We've got to get our financial house in order, and so we've got to look at how we work with City Council and employees and let's go back and see if we can't carve up some excess spending."
Kilsheimer pushed back by challenging Nelson's figures.
"I'm sorry to tell Bryan this, but he has gotten his homework wrong. He is patently wrong on this issue about reserves. You don't have to look any further than Apopka's budget book for 2017-18. If you look at page 39, you will see the reserves stood at $8.6 million, or more than 20% of the general fund unrestricted budget. If you look at the City's total deposits, it's at $59-million. So this idea of reserves is just wrong."
Campaign finance and donations were bound to be a significant issue, and they too came up early when a question about the old Florida Hospital took a turn towards a specific campaign contribution.
"Redevelopment of the old Florida Hospital site is one of the most exciting projects in Apopka," said Kilsheimer. "Florida Hospital has chosen Craig Ustler, who many people know as Orlando's partner on the Creative Village project. Craig and Florida Hospital are going to redevelop that site into a mixed-use development for the active senior market. What I have proposed is the idea of jointly master-planning a community recreation complex that will go where the Fran Carlton (Community Center) is and where the City's recreational assets are. In that way, we can get the residents of that new complex using the City's recreational complex, and we can get a recreational complex for the entire community."
But before Nelson revealed his idea for the old Florida Hospital site, he brought up Ustler's affiliation with Kilsheimer.
"It's funny that Craig Ustler is the project manager. His dad Tom was a grower here many, many moons ago. We haven't been shut out of the discussions with Craig, but he did support the mayor with some campaign contributions so you should probably take that into account. I think we need to look at that area as being bike-able and walkable. It should be where the Town Center is. We've got a Town Center, and we're going to make this project happen right here in Apopka, but really that's where it ought to be. You can walk from Votaw Road all the way to the Catfish Place and back. It's a great location for a Town Center, where along with the active senior community will make a great place for future development."
The moderators returned to the discussion of budgets and reserves 27 minutes later, and Nelson attacked Kilsheimer's spending practices, while Kilsheimer defended his approach.
"Back in 1991 we were in the nursery business, and there was a hail storm that knocked out every greenhouse we had. I had to go without an income for six months. I know that reserves are important. If we didn't have reserves at the nursery, I wouldn't be here today. We lost everything we had in that short amount of time - in one hour we lost our whole crop. So we've got to be careful about reserves. We've got to stop the bleeding and start putting money back into reserves."
In response, Kilsheimer outlined the process of creating the budget.
"Well Bryan, if you were getting a grade on your homework it would be an 'F' because you are flat-out wrong about how much money we are taking out of reserves. All our City Commissioners went through every single line of our budget in the budget workshops. And by the way, we never had budget workshops until I became mayor. We had an open, honest, and fair budgeting process. Every one of the critical infrastructure needs that we funded in the city of Apopka has come after hours of deliberation and have been agreed on by a consensus of our City Council."
After a question about office space in Apopka, Kilsheimer referenced economic development and the coming future of Apopka as it related to the rest of Central Florida.
"Class A office space is one of the biggest issues facing Apopka. The Wekiva Parkway opens in 2021. The intersection of Kelly Park Road and the Wekiva Parkway... if you look at that in comparison to all other areas in Central Florida... Lake Mary is just about built-out. Downtown Orlando is very extensively built-out. Maitland is almost built-out. So the next place is going to be the intersection of Kelly Park Road and the Wekiva Parkway. It's going to take a focus on economic development strategy."
Nelson referenced two federal programs but also took the opportunity to criticize Kilsheimer on a local program the mayor plans to end.
"First of all, I would rescind the order that gets rid of the (Apopka) UCF (Business) Incubator," Nelson said. "The mayor basically told them he doesn't want them anymore. So he got rid of them. The Incubator has 11 companies trying to start and grow their businesses, so they would need that office space. Another thing we need to look at is the HUB zones and the Enterprise zones in Apopka. HUB zones are great opportunities to get into federal contracts, and we've got so many opportunities here in Apopka. Basically, it stretches from 441 south to Hawthorne (Avenue). So let's focus on the HUB zones, Enterprise zones, let's keep the UCF Incubator, and we'll create jobs that will force our developers to create jobs that will force our developers to grow Class A office buildings."
The moderators asked about South Apopka and if they support annexing it into Apopka, or if coordination between City and County services should be improved, but Kilsheimer and Nelson seemed to have a different approach that didn't fall into the parameters of the specific question.
"South Apopka is one of the most intractable problems in Apopka," said Kilsheimer. "I think the idea of annexing South Apopka is a moral issue as it is an economic issue. If we did it for moral reasons, we would have to solve the economic issues. Just to serve South Apopka, we would have to buy at least two more garbage trucks, several more fire engines, we would have to hire a number of new police officers, and then cover the area with a range of services. I'd be willing to have the discussion, but the City of Apopka can't bear this issue by itself."
Nelson gave an example of City and County working together in his assessment of South Apopka.
"Let me tell you about the (John) Bridges Center. They do an amazing job down there. We've got a Head Start and an after-school program. We've got GED (classes), and events every weekend. Quite honestly we need two Bridges Centers. But the Bridges Center doesn't draw a line between City and County. We take anyone. We will take you and will help you no matter what your issues are. We had a back-to-school event last year, and we gave away almost 1,500 backpacks. And we didn't ask 'are you in the City of Apopka?' No, we took care of South Apopka. So the City and the County can work together."
The question of the Apopka UCF Business Incubator returned later in the debate, and Kilsheiimer explained his actions.
"The issue with the Incubator is that it was created with money from the City of Apopka out of the CRA program. The City of Apopka signed a five-year deal with UCF and provided $200,000 a year to UCF to run that Incubator. The City of Apopka spent a million dollars on that Incubator! A million dollars! And how many jobs has it created? I love UCF as much as anybody in this room, but if we're going to spend that much money, we need to see some kind of return. So the Incubator actually belongs in another place in Apopka. That City Center project is going to make Apopka a better place to live."
Nelson disagreed with the notion that the Incubator wasn't worth the investment.
"The Incubator generates about $300,000 annually in economic activity. There is one company in the Incubator called Flame Boss that recently sold for millions of dollars. The next one might stay in Apopka. We have to develop Class A office space, but the Incubator is doing its job. We just have to give them the chance to move these startup companies to the next level."
The moderators asked Kilsheimer if he was inclusive to all of Apopka, or only to special interests? He responded by pointing out a booming City Facebook page.
"When I started... the City of Apopka was run by a small group of people self-selected... and they regarded themselves as the guardians of the Apopka legacy. The City of Apopka, since I've taken office, has more than quadrupled our Facebook followers.If you wanted to know information about the City of Apopka before I took office, you had to wait for the weekly newspaper to come out on Friday. Today if you want to know what's going on in Apopka all you have to do is to check our Facebook page. We put stories up every single day. The 50,000 residents of Apopka are more aware today of what's going on than ever."
Nelson pointed to Kilsheimer's department heads leaving as proof he is doing something wrong.
"The mayor has gone through every department head once and two twice. Two financial directors in his short period as mayor. The finance director is a pretty important job. Two finance directors in four years that ought to tell you something."
Kilsheimer explained the reason for two Finance Directors leaving was not because of finances.
"With regards to the finance directors... one of them left immediately after we passed the budget. He was part of the old regime, and he didn't want to stick around and see his work being picked apart. We had to pass an $11-million budget amendment to cover the cost of construction that wasn't included by Richard Anderson in that 2015 budget. That's number one, and number two, the finance director of the City of Apopka, who just left, is going back to Virginia to be with her family. She's retiring. She's not quitting because of any issues with the budget. She is retiring."
The subject of campaign contributions returned later in the debate, which has been a contentious issue since the beginning of the campaign, and the debate discussion only magnified it.
Nelson contrasted his contributors (mostly from Apopka), with Kilsheimer's (primarily from outside the city).
"Look at all the campaign contributions I have received and look at the contributors my opponent has gotten, and see how many came from Apopka. They're not good old boys; they're not young boys, they're just people that live in Apopka, Plymouth, and Zellwood. They've known me for my entire life. They've known me for six months, ten years, whatever. But my support comes from Apopka, not from Winter Park, not from Tampa, and not from Orlando.
In rebuttal, Kilsheimer pointed out that he has openly disclosed every one of his campaign contributions.
"The key with regards to campaign contributions is transparency. Every single one of my contributions are listed and available for inspection. And the voters of Apopka can see for themselves. People who contribute to my campaign share my vision for moving Apopka forward, and I'm proud of every single person who has contributed to my campaign, and all you have to do is judge for yourself if these people want to keep Apopka moving forward or take Apopka backward."
But Nelson fired back with specific donors on the Kilsheimer list and their possible motives for contributing.
"Look at his contributors. They're developers like MMI who built Marden Ridge Apartments that he gave a sweetheart deal on the road. He got money from Shoot Straight because they are building a new building. He got money from Tampa from an old client, what do they care about Apopka? Let's look at the contributions, and I'll take my little $50 and $100 contributors from Apopka any day over those $1000 contributions."
At the end of this historic debate, only a few things became more evident than when the evening began. First, there is no love lost between these two candidates. Second, there is no love lost between the campaign's supporters. Third, Kilsheimer and Nelson were unable to find common ground, and sadly neither found the high ground either.
One thing is for sure - the winner of this election will take the City of Apopka in a dramatically different direction than the other.
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