Editor's Note: Earlier this month, The Apopka Voice interviewed 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. In this four-part series, we start by analyzing the contrasts between Becker and Nelson. Tomorrow, we compare their potential approach to the annexation of South Apopka, and on Friday we conclude with comprehensive features on both candidates, and their plans to move Apopka forward in the coming term.
By Reggie Connell, Managing Editor
Commissioner Kyle Becker and Mayor Bryan Nelson have served on the Apopka City Council for over three years. They are both residents of Apopka, members of the First United Methodist Church of Apopka, and are running for Mayor of Apopka in 2022.
That's where the similarities end.
Both Becker and Nelson sat down with The Apopka Voice for a 90-minute interview earlier this month. Afterward, it was clear these two candidates have opposing visions for Apopka, share little common ground, and possess two very different approaches to governing.
Becker is data-driven, prepared, and focused on the future. Nelson is fiscally conservative, deliberate, and focused on solving problems. Becker is a 15-year resident of Apopka. Nelson was born in Apopka in 1958 and four generations of Nelsons currently reside in the city.
That's not to say Becker is fiscally reckless or Nelson lacks vision, but the campaigns are telling two different stories at this stage of their campaigns. For now, they are running in separate lanes, but those lanes are inevitably going to collide.
There are 133 days before voters cast their ballots in this election, yet the battle lines are becoming clear. And so far, the skirmishes have been over the millage rate, economic development, and the staffing levels of fire engines. Ultimately, other issues will bubble up to the surface.
What contrasts you with your opponent?
It's not a difficult question to answer when the differences are this vast, and both Becker and Nelson answered with candor and ease.
Becker referenced Nelson's style of management in comparison to his own.
"I think Mayor Nelson is more reactive," he said. "Clearly, we saw that with the presentation I made during the budget workshop around the lack of maintenance around our city. It ties back into economic development. We wait for people to knock on the door at City Hall and come to us with plans, versus us sitting in a room and strategizing, having design sessions, having thought partnership conversations to say, 'what are some things that we want to do in our city?'
He describes himself as proactive with a plan for the future.
"I used the word "intentional" during my kickoff. I want to do things on purpose. In order to do that you have to plan. Mayor Nelson had campaigned [in 2018] on the idea of having a strategic plan in place for our city. And to date, there has not been one shared with commissioners. But a strategic plan is multi-pronged in terms of its benefit. First and foremost, it tells residents about what an administration is trying to accomplish in a given period of time. So let's call it a three to five-year strategic plan for our city... what are we trying to do? Where are our focus areas? What are our priorities?"
Nelson sees his business success in the community as an advantage over Becker.
"Obviously, I've been in business for 40 years," Nelson said. "I've hired folks. I've had to get rid of people... so I've got a lot more experience in the hiring and firing process than my opponent. I'm not sure he's even hired anybody. I don't know. His resume doesn't even say exactly what he does. Mine is pretty self-evident."
Nelson also believes his public service to the community exceeds Becker.
"If you look at my record of service in Apopka, I've got probably 20 committees I'm on at the state level, the district level, and the city level, and his is really weak. So I think the commitment to the community... and you can't buy that 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 my opponent doesn't have."
There was perhaps no bigger debate over the last several months leading into the budget workshops and hearings than economic development. Nelson maintains it is the role of the mayor, while Becker believes it's best handled by an economic development director.
"One-third of our new ad valorem has come from industrial alone," Nelson explained. "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. I know that's one of his [Becker's] things... having an economic development director, but 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. I've met with billion-dollar companies that are looking for properties for industrial, and light manufacturing. We haven't nailed down any of them yet, but not for a lack of trying."
His approach for attracting retail businesses, and restaurants also differs from Becker's plan.
"We want more business, and everybody talks about retail and restaurants, but what people don't understand is if you don't have a good lunch business you can't expect a restaurant to make it on dinner business. I think as we bring these industrial businesses to Apopka, that will create jobs, and they will need to find restaurants to have lunch at."
For Becker, who has presented his case for an economic development director or department since his first year on the Council, this issue is at the core of his motivation in running for mayor.
"I think the biggest contrast, and it's a platform issue of mine, is economic development," he said. "This lack of desire on Mayor Nelson's part to invest real sufficient investments in economic development. He likes to say that he himself is wearing the hat of the economic development director for our city because people want to see the mayor in the room and they're impressed by that. I just fundamentally disagree. I think the cities that do this well invest the right amount of dollars into economic development directors... that is their expertise, they are subject matter experts in the field. They know how to get things done based on what the city is trying to accomplish."
Even his definition of economic development differs from Nelson's.
"When I say economic development, it's a buzzword and it's kind of nebulous in terms of its meaning, but it's synonymous with the quality of life... getting things for our city," Becker said. "This is one of the reasons I ran in the first commission race. I use the tagline "I'm trying to make Apopka a destination for our residents first, and then for our visitors". What I mean by that is... Apopka has been called a bedroom community, but what's happened is over the last 10-15 years you have this new wave of residents that come into the city. And yeah, they've built their homes here. They've raised their family here. They have their kids in athletics here. But then they want to do other things here as well. And they're not able to do that. And they're going outside of the city to do these things. And so it all kind of boils down to the quality of life. It's sit-down restaurants, it's retail, it's shopping... what is the vibe of the city that we want to have so that it makes it a very attractive place, and residents take pride and brag about it."
Another issue that has caught the attention of the community is staffing fire engines. Should it be two-person teams with a two-man squad truck as it is now in Apopka, or three-person teams on the engines? Becker pressed this topic during the budget workshops and continues to call for three-person teams, even if it takes multiple budget cycles to accomplish.
"As it relates to the fire department, my question is, absent money, make a decision about what's right or wrong... what you want to do or don't want to do," he said. "Take money out of it first. Do we feel that it's right to staff our apparatus with three people? I asked that question point-blank to Chief Wylam, and his answer was 'yes' at that budget workshop. And so if the person that you have leading in that department that you've chosen, and you had him ratified by our Council, is saying that he wants to get to that... and the only obstacle to that is budget...why are we even arguing the idea of whether or not we want to have that three-person staffing or not? We've already made that decision, or at least your chief has... because he answered that question to me in that manner. So then it becomes how do we get to that?"
Becker sees the issue as something to work towards, not take on in one year.
"Again, I'm not saying that it has to be a one-year budget course correction. But you've got to be able to, if nothing else, for the morale within your department... the people that go out there and put their lives on the line for you. To say, 'yes, we agree, and we're taking some steps.' We're taking these steps to get us eventually where we're going to need to be. But forward progress. I mean, we can't continue to take baby steps all the time. We've got to take baby steps and we've got to take toddler steps, then we've got to take adult steps to get what we need to get done here. But when there's a perpetual state of baby steps, then we're never going to get where we need to get."
Nelson believes the AFD has performed well for 17 years under several fire chiefs and even goes the extra step to assist Orange County Fire Rescue on calls... all the while utilizing a two-person apparatus, and a two-person squad truck to assist.
"[We've made] 180 calls on behalf of Orange County and they've done zero for us," Nelson said. "So when you talk about services of the fire department we've more than handled our own. We talk about four people on a truck versus two, but you don't bring up the squad, which is the whole reason there is a squad... so that we get two people there faster than the fire truck gets there. They figure out what the issues are so when the fire truck gets there, now you have four. It's not just two. And for 17 years, it's worked... under Richard Anderson, Lee Bronson, Chuck Carnesale, and Sean Wylam... the squad system has worked. Nobody has ever complained. Not once. Nobody. And 17 years later people want to say we want to put more people on the fire truck. So why is that?"
Nelson's approach to managing the population growth in Apopka as it relates to the fire department is by adding stations rather than disrupting the two-person squad trucks.
"So do we put three on the fire truck, or do we at some point look at adding fire station #7? Now we get a station out by Kelly Park Crossing. To me, I'd rather have another station, because you're coming from right there versus coming from Fire Station #6. Right there - one mile away versus 3-4 miles. That makes more sense to me."
During the budget workshops, and again at the final hearings, the millage rate was a volatile issue - and of course, Becker and Nelson were adversaries on the final vote. Nelson believes Becker's vote against lowering the millage rate one tenth of a mill proves he will spend more budget dollars then he would.
"He wants to spend more money," said Nelson. "He voted against the property tax decrease and we thought it was important to give some money back. 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 wait another two years as well. There are no safety issues. Let's make sure we're spending wisely... as I say to my staff... this isn't spending money as you would spend it, but spending money like your mother would spend it... who is always a little more conservative. So spending is probably the biggest difference."
Becker believes there are current needs in the city that could have been funded this year by not lowering the millage rate. And those needs will only get costlier with time.
"Certainly, the millage conversation that we had most recently during the budget workshops, I think is a point of view that we differ on," he said. "When we talk millage, obviously we just had the most recent budget hearings and the mayor fought very hard to get the millage rate reduced by a tenth of a mill. At the same time, I heard from departments that had staffing needs, that are front and center. I know that during the course of a campaign like this, tax rates typically get politicized... they get put into the campaign conversation. But our residents have to realize that we have the lowest millage rate for a full-service city in Orange County, and probably in the whole Central Florida area. So to reduce already what is the lowest tax rate by a 10th of a mill makes zero sense when you have critical staff needs today. In fact, I think it's punitive to the taxpayer to reduce a 10th of a mill now when we know that we've got these critical spending needs, and it's going to cost more to do it two years from now at a larger expense than it is today..."
In Part Two tomorrow: Should Apopka annex South Apopka? It's a question that is asked every election cycle. Is it too expensive? Is Orange County better equipped to service this struggling community? Or is South Apopka already a part of Apopka and would be welcomed with open arms into the city? Both Becker and Nelson weigh-in on their opinions and approaches to the generational issue.
Correction: On Nelson's campaign website, it states in the "About" section in a bullet-point "4th Generation Apopkan". What that means, according to Nelson, is that four generations of Nelsons currently live in Apopka. We have corrected the above article.
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