Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson and Commissioner Kyle Becker stood toe-to-toe on the stage Monday night at the Apopka Community Center in what may be their only mayoral debate. Well, in reality, they sat behind tables on the stage and fielded questions from Joel Silver, the out-of-town moderator, who asked the two candidates 13 questions in a little over 67 minutes. Silver is the CEO of Silver Digital Media.
Before a live crowd of almost 300, an overflow audience at the nearby Victory Church, and hundreds more watching on live stream at home and at watch parties across the community, the two candidates for mayor of Apopka illustrated the stark differences in their approach to leading Apopka into the future.
The debate was sponsored by the Apopka Area Chamber of Commerce.
In this three-part series, The Apopka Voice will analyze every aspect of this fascinating debate. Part three includes growth, taxes, and challenges facing Apopka.
Silver closed the debates with big-picture questions:
What steps are necessary for revenue growth to fund your agendas for the next four years? Will that include property tax or increases in taxes?
Becker believes it's an all of the above approach to properly fund a budget.
"It's a multi-pronged approach," he said. "There's no silver bullet in terms of revenue or funds that fund your city. It's got to be a multi-pronged approach. Your tax rate is certainly one thing, growing your tax base, your rich tax base and industrial or commercial. But I had a conversation with a developer the other day and they said, 'Hey, we don't mind if you increase your fees in the permitting process of the building process because we have fees that are materially lower than other municipalities. We don't mind paying additional fees because we are so low, if it means that we get a more efficient government to get a more efficient process out of our city hall experience.' And so there's frustrations there. So if you look at maximizing and normalizing your fee structure, your fee schedule, and then too, if we come back to Camp Wewa, when we were contemplating the purchase of that location, my opponent felt like it was status quo for that to be a lost leader for our city. Meaning we're going to take a large loss like, the rest of our parks and rec space, almost 80%, versus making sure that it's an entity or an asset that operates and pays for itself. Every dollar that we lose in the parks and recs is another dollar that we will have for public safety or other critical needs within our city. So you optimize your fee structure, you get revenue sources that we can use for Camp Wewa... like doing something with pavilions and park spaces that are available for rent. Even my opponent was talking about how, when he was first elected, that he was going to cut the symphony, but then saw the value in it and said that it should pay for itself, and yet we don't have sponsorship for that. That's a $30,000 to $40,000 expenditure that you should be finding sponsorships to do. So it's a multi -pronged approach, and with my business background, I feel like I can have that conversation."
In his response, Nelson recalled a scoreboard deal that went wrong that Becker voted in favor of.
"The sports programs at Apopka, I hope we don't have to raise the rates, because there's a lot of kids out there that are struggling to make ends meet," said Nelson. "But I know we can put together... we have a program out there for some scoreboards that the commissioner voted on. A group out of North Carolina that sat blank for a couple of years. I reached out to AdventHealth and so they came in as our partner. We now have $10,000 that goes towards sports scholarships, so the kids that can't afford to be in Pop Warner or Little League or soccer... they were able to get some money to help toward the cost of that. We also, with that Advent partnership, were able to put in a nice little fitness center on the backside of the pond at Jason Dwelley. So we've done a lot of things. Camp Wewa is a great gem... it's a beautiful gem, but obviously if we get to break even I'd be happy. I mean obviously the YMCA... they didn't get rid of it because it was a big profit center, but I'll tell you this - we had Lowes come in and help us... probably spent with all their sweat equity north of $100,000 helping us get that thing up to where it's pristine. We're now working on a project with a company out of Canada to put in a ropes course ... they're going to help partner with us to do that. That will also make Camp Wewa even a better place for our campers to go, and make us even more world renowned, as far as summer camps for the youth, here in the greater Central Florida area."
Becker acknowledged the scoreboard deal went awry, but also pointed out Nelson did not explain his plan to fund the budgets of the next four years.
"I didn't hear a funding conversation out of that response in the famous scoreboard debacle," he said. "I get it. But at the end of the day, we paid $46,000 for capital improvements that we would have done anyway. So yeah, we've got scoreboards, and I'm not sure how AdventHealth fits into it, but the scoreboards were an expenditure that the City did and I get that. But that's what we would have paid in the market anyways. We were trying to enter into a rev-share agreement with the company that they went in through and unfortunately that company went under. No one had a crystal ball at the time. But I certainly appreciate AdventHealth's sponsorship of our park space. And that's the type of sponsorships that we need to get across the board, not just in our parks and recs areas, but some of the events that we want to have in the city of Apopka."
Nelson acknowledged that sponsorships were a challenge, but did list a lot of concerts at the amphitheater that Apopkans have enjoyed.
"We did probably one of the biggest concerts we ever had at the amphitheater," he said. "And that was John Anderson and Sawyer Brown. And we almost broke even on a big concert where 4,000-5,000 people showed up. So it was a great event. Having two former Apopkans come out to Apopka and be a part of a big event. We were so excited. And we were able to get a lot of sponsorships... we got a bunch of T shirt sales and sponsorships, we were getting close to break even - really exciting. We need to get a sponsorship for the amphitheater. We're working on a couple of folks that might want to come in and be that corporate sponsor. But you know, right now with COVID, people are still nervous. You know, do they want to come out? Yes, I think they're starting to come out. And I will tell you the concert series has been an absolute hit. And yes, it doesn't make any money... doesn't make a nickel. But I tell you, there's a lot of folks that love going out there on Saturday nights, and listening to a great band, listen to the Philharmonic... come out, bring your picnic basket, and have a good time. So it's really been successful, and we're going to keep plugging along with the Saturday Sounds."
Silver's last question was an even loftier question than the previous:
What do you feel are the most important challenges facing our community? And how do you propose to address them?
Becker stuck to his platform to answer the challenge.
"When I first started the kickoff for the campaign I was trying to do my platform positions... economic development... something I've talked about for six years," he said. "But you know, it's like I said in my opening remarks, it's getting to the basics first. When we had the last budget workshop, and we're talking about doing a 10th of a mil reduction, which equates to about $12 to $15 in each one of our pocketbooks... for an entire year, I went around our city and took pictures of places that were in extreme need of care, whether it be overgrown vegetation, entryways into our city that were lacking, infrastructure needs, things like that. I put that in front of our council, but I was accused of grandstanding. And most recently, we had a resident come in... a business owner... done a lot of construction and he talked about the litter, talked about lighting, and talked about the conditions of the road. And we've got to do that first. Like I've said many times, residents and people that visit our city eat with their eyes first. Our city has to look right, it has to look like something that we're proud to call home first. And when I get into the office, that's my first order of business. Within my first 100 days, though, it's all about getting staff buy-in, and you can only get staff buy-in if you have a strategic plan in which to do so. We have to anchor our employees... we have to anchor our residents to understand what our mission is. What are our values driving us from an administration standpoint? How do we judge and guage success of our city? And that's something that I will get in place day one, or within the first 100 days, because our staff, in terms of morale, which is low, has to understand what we're trying to do as an administration. And then by extension, the residents will as well. So, start small, but big things will happen."
For Nelson, the biggest challenge was, in his opinion, fixing the budget and fiscal miscues of the previous administration in order to take on the challenges of the future.
"Well I guess we go back when we got into office... yeah, the reserves were low, and let me just tell you, what they did is they took $400,000 under his [Becker's] leadership, along with Kilsheimer's. They took $400,000 out of our utilities, two years before that... before he got into office, so I won't give him credit for that one, they took a million dollars out of the utilities and took it over to general funds. Now, I don't know where that money went. I don't know what it was spent on, but they spent it, so we had to come in and fix things. So my first two years, I replaced the roofs on the annex City Hall, Station One and public works. We've got $2.8 million in road improvements going on this next year. So we'll get a lot... we'll be above all of the cities within the Central Florida area as far as their the quality of the road surface. We got $400,000 put into lights, adding LED lights, putting new lights in. We've added $300,000 for landscaping. You're right. We haven't done a lot with the landscaping. But think about this folks, COVID affected a lot of different businesses, and landscapers have really been impacted. So I don't know how many people have seen on Saturday or Sunday, the guys out there mowing the right-of-ways. That's because they can't get it done on Monday through Friday. So they're out there, they're hustling as hard as they can to get the grass mowed, get the things picked up out of the right-of-ways. We also have as a City, we've had a lot of silos out there. A lot of the departments work in silos versus collaborative efforts. So we put together money in there for training, to try to get out of the silos. Public works needs to work with community development, community development needs to work with finance, finance needs to work with Parks and Rec. Getting that collaborative effort amongst all of our departments has been a challenge, no doubt about it. But we're making progress. And I feel like the city has really come a long way in four years. And the next four years will be brighter and brighter."
In rebuttal, Becker wondered why it took the departments so long to coordinate with one another.
"I don't know. But these four years for basic collaboration among staff... I mean, four years is way too long," he said. "He keeps on saying the reserve is low. How low? Give me a number. Be specific, because our reserve balance has not dropped below 16.67%, which is the floor comfort level, which is basically two months of our operating expenditures. It's never dipped below that during my time on city council. So for us to say that the reserve balance has been low, or in a danger zone... give me a break, because it's just not substantiated. I got our certified financial statements. If you want to meet me after the meeting, I will point to you exactly where this is evidence. The road improvements? We had to wait for a study for almost a year, and we still relied on staff to prioritize the streets for us. It was a waste of a year. We should have been doing road improvements because it was money or data to suggest that minimal investment and maintaining the roads pays off long term."
In rebuttal, Nelson focused on his debt-cutting techniques he has practiced during his term.
"Okay, let's go back - dirt sales, we took dirt sales, which should have gone in utilities... you put them in general fund reserves. So yeah, those dollars were in the wrong department. They should never have been general fund reserve. And under his [Becker's] leadership, we added $3 million in debt for tasers and for stretchers and for cars. Under my administration, we reduced the overall indebtedness by $10 million, which equates to $1.5 million in free cash flow that we can use to do roads, to do lights, to do Parks and Rec. So we have done a lot with a little. And COVID impacted our budget over $3 million last year and probably another million and a half this year. We are proud of the team we put together that have really taken an interest in spending the money not like you'd want to spend it as your own. But like, as I tell my employees, spend it like it's your mother's money, which is much more important than your own money. So we've done a lot with a little and I'm proud of the team I've assembled here. And I challenge my opponent to find anybody in leadership that's not better than the person that left before them."
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