What happens when a municipal administration that doesn't want to annex a community into its City meets a community that doesn't trust the City it thinks is courting it for annexation? Perhaps a quirky new sitcom on Netflix?
No, the City of Apopka Community Meeting for South Apopka Annexation happens.
Despite an inconvenient 4 pm starting time, an estimated crowd of over 100 residents filled the John H. Bridges Center for the event. But what they heard from the City seemed to have them scratching their heads.
"So we're gonna just jump right into it," said Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson after the pledge of allegiance concluded. "The presentations are kind of talking about what those services would look like and then we'll wrap up with the fiscal forecast. So we'll start out with the process itself, which will be [presented] by our [City] Attorney Michael Rodriguez."
It was an abrupt beginning to a meeting/workshop that was about to give a lot of details about a lot of things. It certainly would have been helpful to the residents if Nelson had taken the time to explain what was about to happen... or even shown excitement for the prospect... like, say, the way he did in April of 2021 when he presented a three-way trade to the Rock Springs Ridge residents.
"As you all know, I got elected three years ago," he said. "And ever since then, we've been trying to set up an arrangement to get Dello Russo out of Rock Springs Ridge."
A pretty proactive approach to helping the RSR community.
Or at the special meeting in February 2021 to discuss the purchase of Camp Wewa.
"Three weeks ago, I got a call from the YMCA about this property," Nelson told the City Council and all attending the meeting. "It was basically a courtesy call to let us know they were going to sell the property to a developer, and I thought I would want to know. I just said wow. Having been there, I knew how amazing this property was. I asked them to give us a couple of weeks to do our due diligence, and maybe we can come up with a plan to purchase."
No complaints about pricing or potentially having to raise taxes. Just a forward-moving, get-it-done attitude.
Ultimately, Apopka paid $4.7 million for Camp Wewa, and essentially offered the city-owned properties on Harmon Road to the RSR Homeowners Association for $2.5 million, even though they would later be offered over $6.5 million for the parcels.
South Apopka, however, was about to experience a presentation illustrating how expensive this annexation would be for both the City and its homeowners.
Just like the November 29th South Apopka Annexation Workshop, the administration, department heads, and staff went through the proposed budget increases that would incur if South Apopka came into the City's jurisdiction. A new fire station, additional firefighters, and police, road improvements, and infrastructure, and of course, higher taxes.
For the residents of South Apopka, it was like being invited to a party, only to have the host read off a list of expenses he incurred for throwing the soiree.
Finally, after the presentation ended, 13 public speakers came to the podium to express a range of negative emotions at what they just heard.
"So I would like to know, what do you plan to do with the residents of South Apopka?" Asked resident, Lori Tarver. "I don't hear anything about helping. I hear about infrastructure and all this sort of stuff. But I want to know what you are doing for the residents, not just for the monetary aspect of it but what you are doing for the residents... and in part two, why now?"
"That's a pretty easy answer.," Nelson said, choosing part two to respond to. "I think when Commissioner Smith ran for election, one of his main platforms was looking at the annexation of South Apopka. So I think this hearing..."
But Commissioner Diane Velazquez took exception to Nelson's theory.
"I have a different opinion with that, Mr. Mayor," she said. "I think each of us up here had run on a platform to consider South Apopka for annexation. It's just not Commissioner Smith."
Commissioner Kyle Becker also had a different viewpoint from Nelson on why they were there.
"This shouldn't be the City pushing this initiative onto other people," Becker said. "It should be that there's a true desire from the residents living in the unincorporated section of Orange County that sees value in coming to our city. And that's what it's always been about. At the end of the day, it's about the outcome, and the outcome is a better positive life day to day for residents here. And so I just want to hear that feedback from you all because I come at it from a blank slate."
"I can only speak for myself, but at this point, I'm totally against it," Tarver said. "As I said, the cost of living is increased... everything. I cannot afford to pay anything. Or risk a 21 percent increase in property taxes, the changeover from septic to sewer... It's just bad timing."
"And to your first question... the numbers we gave you are status quo," Nelson said. "We're not adding any value. If you're looking for additional value, you get one more garbage pickup a week, but that's all we're giving you. We have to start from a level playing field, which is you want the staffing as you've got? No better, no worse. I mean, maybe a little better, just because, you know, we're a smaller municipality. But that's the point. If you want better, we've got to go above the number we're talking about."
Not exactly the "We've never met a stranger here in Apopka" video promoting the City that we see from Nelson on the City's YouTube page. It makes you wonder why anyone would want to live, work or play here if this is how the mayor talks about the city he leads.
The second speaker did not give their name but made a core point that many other speakers shared.
"I heard nothing, zero of what any of you had to say to support this annexation. It was negative, negative, negative from every one of these people here. Every single thing was negative, negative. I see all this new growth and buildings and everything else. But the police department is going to be able to support them by department, financial, all these people here who can support Apopka, who supported the city of Apopka. That you can't support us, but you can support all this new growth. How are you supporting new growth without your extra police and your extra Fire Department? I'm just wondering. There are too many people in South Apopka who have worked hard. Everybody that goes to work comes back and spends their money in Apopka. So all your new growth is on their backs too. And all these meetings you have are negative, negative, negative. So stop the fake if you're not here to support and annex us."
Commissioner Nick Nesta also wanted to clarify his reasons for being a part of this meeting.
"I know the reason I am personally here," he said. "I'm not going to speak for anybody else up here. I want to hear from you. I'm here to support you in whatever capacity you would want it. So I don't have a preconceived notion or a preconceived agenda. There are benefits, and there are costs and benefits. From what I've heard, I feel there's an intrinsic value to being part of the city. These residents shop within the city limits, so why not have a voting right in it as well? So I'm here as a blank slate. There are no preconceived notions from me, and I support what the residents want."
Leroy Bell ran for office in Apopka in 2018 and 2020. He thinks equity between Apopka and South Apopka should be much easier to achieve than is currently being realized.
"When I ran for city council, you guys said, 'how can you change South Apopka? What can you do differently from somebody that has never done it before?' It's simple... do in South Apopka what you're doing in North Apopka. It's just that simple."
Lorena Johnson is a South Apopka resident that also wants to see equity in South Apopka.
"I'm trying to understand how everything is being built in North Apopka," Johnson said. "But South Apopka is being neglected. We're building homes, homes, homes, homes, homes in South Apopka. But there's no retail. I've seen Mr. Becker speak, I actually voted for him because I wanted change. All I hear is costs, costs, costs - are my property taxes going up? I want to know, those are the things that we need... that we have concerns for. I want more retail here in South Apopka. I don't want to have to drive to Ocoee to go to the grocery store. I don't want to have to go all the way up to Wekiva to go to the grocery store. Why don't we have retail stores here in South Apopka?"
Becker responded to Johnson with a different perspective about raising taxes to annex South Apopka.
"To address your concerns, Miss Johnson, I mean, not to get into this contentious debate up here. But this last meeting, we just passed an Economic Development Department initiative, and that was a 3-2 vote. It shows you the temperature of what this council is right now. I'm all about progress and pro-growth in business development because it creates opportunities within our city. And your concerns are very valid, in my opinion. Now, the property tax issue, again, the mayor is going to try and have you believe that you have to automatically raise property taxes in order for this to be a reality. And I firmly disagree with that sentiment on the surface of things because this isn't going to be an overnight change. If this were to occur, this would occur over a two to three, maybe even four-year period of time, which would allow us plenty of opportunity to budget properly, and I mean, that's assuming that our property tax revenue stream stays static over that period of time, which we all know that it's not with the growth that we've seen within Apopka. That property tax base is going to increase."
Nelson closed the meeting with a reference to Orange County and its budget being a better fit for South Apopka.
"It's great that we had a much better turnout than the last meeting," he said. "I think we had only two people from unincorporated [Orange County] that were there to speak on behalf of whatever they thought. And so it's nice we got a much better representation of people that have an opinion, either good or bad, of the annexation process... Yes, it's about the numbers, but I'm not tilting the scale... the numbers are what the numbers are. But I think we as a body have to have numbers to be able to justify our decisions. Not only for the annexation piece here in South Apopka but also for North Apopka. Both obviously have to vote in favor of this annexation. So both decisions have to be in the affirmative for this to move forward. And I would also say... not to throw Commissioner [Christine] Moore under the bus, but you know, I would ask the County for help while we're going through this process. If there are things that we're doing in the City for our residents that the County maybe is lacking, reach out to her. I mean, they're there. They've got a $5-6 billion budget, where we have a $150 million budget... so their dollars can be used to make improvements and make a difference here in the unincorporated areas of Apopka. So, thank you all again for coming out, and we appreciate all your input and look forward to a rigorous debate as we move forward. Thank you."
As the Mayor of Apopka, it still astounds me that Nelson would basically defer to Orange County as a better option than the City of Apopka, for South Apopka, or anyone. Are there other existing communities in Apopka that would be better off in the County? Wouldn't Camp Wewa flourish under Orange County leadership and its massive $5-6 billion budget better than under Apopka with its $150 million?
To his credit, Nelson has always been an opponent of annexation, and his attitude and the administration's approach to workshops and presentations obviously reflect that opinion.
But as we learned during the budget hearings for the Apopka Fire Department and in the economic development department vote, this City Council can take action despite an administration that may not favor a particular initiative.
Obviously, the November 29th workshop at City Hall and the January 24th meeting at the John Bridges Community Center did little to advance annexation, but that won't be the last time Apopka reaches out to South Apopka.
Isn't it well within this Council's scope through a consensus vote to direct staff to work within the numbers they just presented, create a plan to make annexation viable, and then return to the South Apopka residents with a workshop going through the benefits of being a part of Apopka? If three of you on Council believe there is more work to do to create One Apopka, I urge you to keep this initiative moving forward.
Commissioner Alexander H. Smith called for a five-year plan in an OP/ED in The Apopka Voice yesterday. I think it can be advanced faster if the Council takes the initiative and allows the administration to take the back seat it so clearly wants to occupy.