Editor’s Note: Earlier this month, The Apopka Voice sat down with Commissioner Kyle Becker and Mayor Bryan Nelson. The two 90-minute interviews were an informative look at the two candidates running to be mayor of Apopka in 2022. We began this four-part series by analyzing the contrasts between Becker and Nelson. In part two, we compared the approach Becker and Nelson would employ in the potential annexation of South Apopka. Today, we conclude the series with comprehensive features on both candidates, and their plans to move Apopka forward in the coming term.
By Reggie Connell, Managing Editor
Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson's roots run deep in this community. He was born in Apopka in 1958. He's lived at the same house in Apopka for the last 25 years. He's owned Nelson Insurance Services in Apopka for 25 years. He owned Nelson's Florida Roses for 20 years before that.
Not to mention, his family name is on the biggest park in Apopka.
Before he was mayor, Nelson represented Apopka in the state legislature and as a county commissioner. He started his political career in 2006 and has never lost an election.
In 2018, Nelson ran for mayor against incumbent Joe Kilsheimer on a platform of bringing back fiscal responsibility, budget discipline, and restoring the general fund reserves to higher levels. His message resonated, and Nelson stormed into office with a resounding 63% of the votes and a clear mandate.
In the 2022 election, Nelson is not straying far from that same message. On his campaign website, he has a "before and after" section describing Apopka before he was in office, and the differences now after over three years in office.
"We really made a lot of progress," Nelson said. "We've got the financial house in order, which has taken us three and a half years. Unfortunately, the COVID sales tax reductions have made a difference. We were clicking along. We were clicking along - but now we're down about $1-1.5 million from where we were. And we were growing at 3-5% a year before that."
Nelson also spoke about changes he made to the staff and city departments, which he says puts them in a position to advance successfully in the future.
"We made a lot of internal improvements that got us into a position that we can spend money in the right areas and kind of weened-out the city as far as our employees. "We've got a really top-notch team. We're ready to start moving forward with projects."
Nelson is a cautious, and deliberate chief executive. Especially as it relates to the budget. He pinches pennies, delays purchases, and looks for inexpensive alternatives. Those choices are exemplified in the most recent road improvements project.
"Obviously, there are two pots of money - utility money which is all based on service costs and there's the general fund - which is taxed-based programming," he explained. "With utility - we're in a position where we rolled over. We had money in the budget for roads last year... because we're doing the survey. Now, we're in a better position, rather than spending that money last year. There were some concerns last year about striping. Two of the roads that were of concern are at the top of the list for repaving... so why pay $50,000 for striping if you're going to repave and have to restripe it again? Now we have the money, and we added a million dollars [in the budget]... and not just for resurfacing, but there are treatments that are less intrusive that will give the road more life. So instead of chewing up the whole road, you can use these treatments that are less intrusive, less expensive, and give you 5-10 more years of life on the road."
Also on his campaign website, Nelson lists his public and community service while a resident of Apopka. It's a list he takes pride in.
"If you look at my record of service to Apopka, I've got probably 20 committees I'm on at the state level, the district level, and the city level," he said. "I think the commitment to the community [is something] you can't buy after the election. It's something you have to commit to, and I've done that and am doing it. I've got those experiences."
According to the site, his record in public and community service includes:
When asked about accomplishments while in office, Nelson returns to the financial success he believes he has had in reducing debt and increasing revenue sources in the budget.
"We reduced our indebtedness by nine million dollars," he said. "The last couple of years of the previous administration they were buying tasers, they were buying stretchers, they were buying cars on payments, and we've not borrowed any money except for the ladder truck... so we haven't borrowed any money as we continue to make the debt service payments - which is down $1.5 million a year. That basically wipes out the loss in sales tax revenue. So now we've added back the municipal service tax of $1.5 million and there we are. We're still increasing. The revenues are still going up because we have less debt service it makes it a better financial situation."
Typically, a candidate running for office will talk about the future and big-ticket items that residents can look forward to. But Nelson points to things that he believes should have been done years ago as accomplishments made in his first term as mayor.
"We came in and we replaced roofs. We replaced the big chiller. We fixed the roof at public works. We've done a lot of deferred maintenance that should have been done along the way."
He also installed a buying process that takes into account when assets may need to be replaced and is budgeting for those inevitable replacements.
"We've got 100 cars which last eight years. That's 12 cars per year. It's simple math. You just keep going through the system... same with ambulances, sanitation trucks - so we're getting to a point that it's recurring... so you know what's coming and budget for it. We're getting everyone in tune with that."
A new public safety building to house both the Apopka Fire and Police Departments has been talked about since the previous administration. But Nelson estimates that the process will begin in six to eight months. He attributes his fiscal management of the last four budgets as the reason Apopka can take on such a big project.
"That will be a pretty big number and we'll probably have to go to the bond market to pay for that," he said. "But we'll be in a position that by the end of the next year, or the following year, all of our general fund debt will be gone. So at that point, we've gotten ourselves in a position that we can borrow and pay $2-million per year for a brand new public safety building."
Nelson estimates its completion by 2024.
There are some other projects that Nelson would undertake in a second term as mayor.
"We want to get Camp Wewa up to the glory days of the 90s and 2000s," he said. "We're looking at major improvements at the Northwest Facility. As we start the road program we want to get them onto a system. The other thing we've accomplished is we will be completely digital - paperless by the end of the year. Fire Station 6... we want to get completed. We have the funding. We have the impact fees and a million from the state."
At the budget workshops and hearings, there was an ongoing debate among the Council about millage rates. Leaving the millage at 4.2876 would have given the Apopka budget an additional $400,000. Nelson pushed for dropping it one-tenth of a mill and giving taxpayers that modest reduction.
"We thought it was important to give some money back," Nelson said. "You can put whatever number you want on property taxes and it wouldn't fulfill every want the city has. It's just like my household. My car is six or seven years old. Yeah, we could get a new car tomorrow, but we can also wait another two years. There are no safety issues. As I say to my staff... this isn't spending money as you would spend it, but rather spending money like your mother would spend it... who is always a little more conservative."
Nelson pushed hard for the reduction and won a 4-1 vote on Council in his favor to drop then millage rate to 4.1876.
Another contentious debate that surfaced at the budget workshops and hearings was Apopka's approach to bringing economic development to the community. Nelson maintains a grassroots effort to attract industrial businesses to Apopka will, in turn, provide the demand side for new businesses, restaurants, and shopping.
"We want more business, and everybody talks about retail and restaurants," he said. "One-third of our new ad valorem has come from industrial alone," he said. "I've been meeting with a lot of people from OEP wanting to come to Apopka. I had a bunch of meetings with folks who are wanting to come to Apopka."
He is also convinced that a mayor can act as the economic development director more effectively than a formal director or department.
"I can assure you that shaking the hand of a guy who can make it happen is way more effective than an economic development director," he said. "I've met with billion-dollar companies with their advance teams were looking for properties around for industrial, light manufacturing. We haven't nailed down any of them yet, but not for a lack of trying."
Also on his campaign website, Nelson has a category entitled "Promises Made/Promises Kept". It is the centerpiece of his 2022 campaign.
"I went down the list of things we promised and we met them all," he said. "Financials were obviously a big part of that and transparency. Every check is being signed-off on by the City Council. Everyone who comes to City Hall has to sign in. Every City Council agenda is out on Friday so everyone has the weekend and all the way to Wednesday to read it, so we're trying to give people the opportunity to be engaged if they want to be, and be as transparent as we can be, and I think that's important. Not only can they call you on the phone, but they can email you. There's a trust there that transparency is being adhered to."
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