At its July 26th budget meeting, the Apopka City Council voted 5-0 to set a millage rate of 4.1876. The vote preceded three days of budget workshops. The general fund budget is at $82.1 million for fiscal year 2023/24.
If you want more details on this year's budget, go here.
In 2022/23, the general fund was at $64.2 million, which was $5.7 million over the previous year's budget - a 9.84% increase. The millage rate was at 4.1876.
In the 2021/22 budget, the general fund was at $58.5 million, which was $6.1 million over the previous year - an 11.6% increase. The millage rate was at 4.1876.
Not that anyone's keeping track, but those were the lead sentences of the last three budget analysis articles that The Apopka Voice published in 2021, 2022, and 2023.
Meet the new budget... same as the old budget.
A lot has changed in Apopka, but a lot has stayed the same - namely, the millage rate and the budget. It seems to be virtually frozen in time, even before it's approved.
Apopka is treading water, and there is no reason to expect anything different anytime soon. It only looks to the future for inevitable things like a public safety center or wastewater treatment facilities, and its system almost guarantees this outcome.
For too many cycles, there has been a static rhythm to budget workshops that goes something like this:
At that point, there is only the option to blow up months of work, raise the millage rate to an unreasonable level, or accept the pre-packaged budget and millage rate - which is always the way it goes.
Wash, rinse, dry, and repeat in the next budget cycle..
Denise and I have traveled the country this past year, and I've read a lot of municipal budgets from across the US. And I have to say, many of them are in stark contrast to Apopka's approach. Other cities set goals, dream big, and look FAR into the future at potential projects. It doesn't mean they go on a spending spree and cripple their taxpayers with unnecessary amenities for their community, but they spend time visioning for their future needs and putting plans in motion.
It's time for Apopka to introduce a similar plan.
Let's start with the concept that a budget starts at zero and works its way through the City's needs and investments into the future until it's complete. It still allows the Council to focus on a low millage rate and reserves if they choose, but it also shows them every option available to move Apopka forward.
On day one of the workshops, every department head begins by presenting a comprehensive budget of everything needed to run their department properly, not just for the coming year but for future expenditures as well.
Instead of being a ceremonial rubber stamp, the City Council can determine what is a need, what is a want, what is for the future, and what gets cut. No more red-lining budget items before the full Council gets a look.
After the department heads finish, there would be a new feature to close the workshops. A feature that would be beneficial to visioning. An aspect that is lacking in the way Apopka constructs its budget.
Many municipalities throughout the country utilize departments, committees, or individuals to head up discussions about their community's strategy, planning, and innovation. This department, committee, or person assists city leaders in defining its vision, setting goals, and developing strategies to meet those goals. It could also design, manage and deliver ideas, identify resources for data analysis, engage with neighbors to hear their feedback, design, and test solutions to improve experiences, and measure performance to improve efficiency.
This process would be designed to give Apopka a roadmap five, 10, or even 25 years into the future. Orange County shouldn't be the only municipality looking that far ahead.
Parts of it would be unattainable. Parts of it would be for future budgets. Other parts would be implemented in the coming years, while other parts could be utilized in its current budget.
It takes visioning, planning, and innovation to do big things like annexing South Apopka, bringing a university or a library to your community... or building a robust economy filled with fine dining and a city center worth bragging about beyond the ceremonial groundbreaking.
Moving Apopka into its inevitable future will never happen under the current plan of budgeting. The Apopka City Council will continue to tread water until it decides not to. It's time to take off the training wheels and let this diverse, creative group of leaders have more options to build this great city beyond the current budget year.
And even though the budget workshops have concluded, I do have a few suggestions for the Council to include as earmarks in this current cycle:
Annexing South Apopka was a hot topic in the summer of 2021, into the 2022 political cycle, and with two workshops and a town hall meeting stretching into 2023.
But those three city-sponsored events about annexation proved two things - one, the City had no ability or motivation to convince the South Apopka community to be annexed. And two, the South Apopka community does not trust Apopka after the three presentations focused almost solely on the costs of annexation without any focus on benefits.
At some point in 2022, a suggestion to form a South Apopka Annexation committee was made. In lieu of the three events, it was never formed, but perhaps earmarking funds to create that committee would be a good idea.
Give this committee a year to make the case to South Apopka and to form a true cost of annexation, along with a plan to make this happen. It's a small price to pay for a big benefit. You should also stand up the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee to assist in this endeavor.
Homelessness is a complex and pervasive social issue that occurs when individuals or families lack stable and safe housing. People experiencing homelessness often face significant challenges in accessing basic necessities such as shelter, food, healthcare, and employment. Homelessness can result from a variety of factors, including poverty, lack of affordable housing, mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence, and inequality.
It is an emerging issue that can have vital consequences if Apopka continues to do nothing.
Many cities have found ways to minimize homelessness in their communities with a wide range of strategies. It's time for Apopka to join these communities.
The first step should be a show of good faith - earmark funding to begin the process of formulating a plan of action to end homelessness.
With that funding, the Council can seek the data necessary to understand homelessness in Apopka. Set goals. Decide on a core plan of affordable housing strategies, supportive services, homelessness prevention, collaboration and coordination with experts in the field and with non-profits already in the fight, and a housing first approach.
But first and foremost, commit to making the fiscal year 2023-24 the budget season that Apopka started fighting homelessness in its community.
These two suggestions would cost very little to fund and could set the stage for tackling two important issues facing this community.
I hope in the next budget season, you can break the streak of consistency in your millage rates and take a look forward to Apopka's future. I'd hate to think I can write next year's budget analysis a year early.