You learn a lot in debates.
It's clear to Apopka voters where Mayor Bryan Nelson and Commissioner Kyle Becker stand on economic development, the City Center, millage rates, the Station Street project, and staffing fire engines. There is clear separation between the two candidates on almost every subject.
There is, however, another issue that seemed to slip through the cracks in post-debate discussions - annexing South Apopka.
The question was asked and answered by both candidates, and then offered up in rebuttal. But at the end of the debate, this longstanding issue seemed to disappear into the ether as it often does. I can recall very few debates in Apopka where the question wasn't asked, answered, and then forgotten only to emerge in the next election cycle.
Wash, rinse, repeat...
But before I, as a writer, fall into my own cycle of complaining after the fact, let me re-state my original point - you learn a lot in a debate. And in this case, that includes what was said about South Apopka. There is actually room for optimism. The biggest takeaway for me is both candidates agreed to a workshop - the first step in annexation exploration. Take a look at Becker and Nelson's opening remarks on the topic...
"This is an easy one to answer," said Becker. "Because the easy answer first and foremost is to have the conversation first. My opponent is unwilling to schedule a workshop that two members of our council on many occasions have asked for to talk about potential annexation of South Apopka, because you can't form a decision on a yes or no answer without all the facts related to making that happen."
I would see Becker's two commissioners and raise him two more. At a July 7th City Council meeting, all four commissioners expressed interest in a workshop on annexing South Apopka. That just leaves Nelson to make it unanimous
"Happy to do that," said Nelson. "I just don't think right now is the right time. I want to get through this budget year. I think next will be a perfect time to do that."
I'm not sure what the time, effort, and cost would be for City staff to do the due diligence of preparing a comprehensive study of annexing South Apopka, and then present it to the City Council in the form of a workshop. But I assume that it would be within their means to help move this decades-old issue forward.
But let's move on.
I don't want to look a gift horse in the mouth as it applies to South Apopka. I would rather throw a saddle on this workshoop and ride. We have a consensus on the City Council. Now, it's just a matter of timing.
Obviously, this workshop is not going to happen until well after the election and swearing-in ceremonies are in Apopka's rearview mirror. That's why this debate question is pertinent. What is Nelson and Becker's appetite for annexation?
Becker's statement suggests that Apopka needs to sell the benefits to the South Apopka residents before moving forward.
"No one's going to vote to annex into the City unless they know what the value proposition is for themselves first," Becker said. "And to understand that, you have to know the makeup of South Apopka. What's the cost of annexing South Apopka? Now a lot of people will anecdotally say that if we annex South Apopka the cost of service will go way up. That might be true in the first year or two years. But that should not be an obstacle for us to have the conversation because it's anecdotal. What we should have in the conversation is how many residents do we have down there? How many residential structures? How many commercial structures? What that allows us to do is understand the impacts that would be financially - impact fees, cost of hooking up the water and sewer, all these things that you would need to do to create the business case so that people knew what it would take to annex them in a mass format. I'm willing to have that conversation. Time and time again, people in South Apopka have talked about how they want additional patrols in that area. I think you can do it with our own Apopka Police Department. We have a great department. Beautification... if we can get some cohesiveness there that just makes everything better. And if you look at it from a math perspective, we're slowly enveloping South Apopka into the city of Apopka proper anyway. And that's going to create a true enclave. So we need to have the conversation, I'm willing to do that."
According to Nelson's opening statement, he is ready to have that discussion too, but then goes on to essentially make the case that Orange County is better suited to provide for South Apopka.
"Let me just tell you some of the things that we've done... as an Orange County Commissioner for three and a half years, I've got a real good relationship with Orange County," Nelson said. "And I can tell you, we just had a meeting this week with the Orange County Sheriff's Department about some of the crime issues in South Apopka. So we're coordinating our efforts, which have been much better under this administration than the past, to come together and work on those issues that are important to South Apopka with crime being number one, number one, number one. The [John] Bridges Community Center does a lot of great things in South Apopka, but think about the cost of the Bridges Center... you've got the Headstart program, which we have no ability to run, and Headstart. We've got the Boys and Girls Club. We've got Boy Scouts, a lot of these programs that Orange County operates that will cost the City lots and lots of dollars."
Nelson is not the only elected official to make the claim that South Apopka is better off with Orange County. Orange County Commissioner Christine Moore wrote an op/ed for The Apopka Voice that makes the same assertion - a bigger budget equals more benefits and services for South Apopka.
And according to Nelson, Orange County MayorJerry Demings agrees.
"I was talking to Mayor Demings about the issue of South Apopka and he said, 'you know, because we're a much bigger, and much larger organization we can absorb South Apopka'.
Nelson goes on quoting Demings:
"He said 'let me tell you about Isleworth. Windermere wanted to incorporate Isleworth because of the tax dollars, but we're not giving that up. But, if you want to take out South Apopka, we'd be happy to give it to you.'"
Nelson ended the Demings quote there and closed with this thought:
"We need to work better with Orange County. That has to be a top priority. But we can work together with the county taking the lead role in the brunt of the financial obligations."
That sounds a little different than being open to a workshop, unless you are just having the workshop to confirm your current belief.
When contacted, Demings had a different recollection than Nelson about the South Apopka discussion.
"Mayor Demings has not spoken recently with Mayor Nelson regarding the potential annexation of South Apopka into the City of Apopka," wrote Despina McLaughlin, the senior public information officer at Orange County in an email. "He does, however, recall meeting with Mayor Nelson approximately two years ago in reference to concerns Mayor Nelson had about violent crime and a perceived lack of adequate social and youth services in the general South Apopka area (incorporated and unincorporated). Mayor Demings said he and Mayor Nelson discussed services already being provided by Orange County to include operation of the John Bridges Center for families, various workforce-housing initiatives, available funding for youth programs through the county’s Children’s Initiative Program and various other county sponsored services that benefit the area. Mayor Demings recalls Mayor Nelson writing him a letter asking for more county funds, but had no plan for Apopka to contribute. Mayor Demings recalls suggesting to Mayor Nelson, at that time, that Apopka consider annexation if he believed more holistic services could be provided by the City of Apopka. Mayor Nelson didn’t express an interest then and since has not expressed any desire to Mayor Demings that he was interested in annexation of unincorporated South Apopka into the corporate city limits of Apopka. Mayors Demings and Nelson continue to partner with Apopka in other ways and Mayor Demings enjoys a good working relationship with Mayor Nelson."
In his rebuttal, Becker appears to pushback on Nelson's take that Orange County is better positioned to make South Apopka a more prosperous and safer community.
"Why does it always get treated like a transactional exchange? We need to understand what the people of South Apopka are truly wanting for their own community, understand all the financials that go around it, and just sell them on the value proposition of annex into the city. The cost of service will go up initially. But as you build that community up and get them layered into our services, which I argue are better than Orange County, it will improve that level of service and its funding perspective if we could do a city, county, state funding practice. If it's good enough for septic-to-sewer it's good enough for South Apopka."
Becker is referring to a state program established by the Clean Waterways Act, which awarded Orange County $41 million to improve water quality and protect Florida’s natural water resources. The funds will predominately help convert septic tanks in Wekiwa Springs and Pine Hills.
It's these types of grants and funding initiatives that might be unearthed during research for an annexation workshop.
Nelson used his rebuttal to again highlight the cost of annexing South Apopka.
"When I was in the state legislature, one of my last years there I had a $250,000 appropriation for South Apopka to convert one of the streets near the dump to city water," Nelson said. "So I understand what it takes to move it over. But when you look at the value of the homes in South Apopka and take the $50,000 homestead exemption, there are not a lot of dollars to go toward meeting a budget... so is it going to meet its needs? No way with the money that's out there. The commercial district in South Apopka... very few [businesses]... we need to grow it, we need to grow it for sure, but they're not a lot of dollars that are being generated... sales tax or property tax dollars because of the commercial side of South Apopka. So it sounds great [a workshop], and we're happy to do it, but you know, we look at where we've been in the last two years with COVID. We got to make sure we're in a position not just to take it for one year. But if you can't take it for the next two decades, then it's not something we should be looking at as a City."
That seems like a complete evolution from "open to a workshop", to "not a fiscally plausible idea"... all wrapped up in a two-minute response and 60-second rebuttal. And maybe Nelson is right. Perhaps South Apopka is simply too expensive a proposition for the City of Apopka to take on. Maybe South Apopka doesn't want to be a part of Apopka. There are a lot of unanswered questions. But a comprehensive workshop would be a logical first step to answering all of those questions.
And I get it, you are a City Council that has to conduct business in a fiscally responsible, sober fashion. But it would be refreshing to hear the same joy from the City Council when talking about potentially bringing a community into Apopka that has endured a lot of struggle over the last several decades and still been a vital part of Apopka's economy and community, as you did when you gleefully spent $4.7 million on Camp Wewa.
No matter what the outcome of the election is, the Apopka City Council is going to look different, and the opinions on this subject may change based on who wins or loses. South Apopka, however, will look very much like it has for years. It's time to move this ongoing debate beyone election season and into a City Council workshop.
And the perfect time would be after the elections, but before the budget workshops. This way, if it is plausible, South Apopka won't have to wait until next year... again.
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