By Reggie Connell, Managing Editor
By any measurement, the Fiscal Year 2021-22 budget process was the most contentious in recent memory. From economic development, to wish lists, to staffing sizes on fire trucks, to millage rates, there was something for everyone to agree or disagree with on this one.
But with a 4-1 vote to approve the 4.1876 millage rate and a $130 million total budget last week, the final hearing/vote could have been a formality wrapped up in short order.
But after 90 minutes of debate at Wednesday’s final budget hearing, it was clear that would not be the case.
Commissioner Kyle Becker, the lone dissenter in the first vote for the budget/millage, took a tour of Apopka in the preceding week between hearings and even had photos to share with the Council.
“I’m not trying to place blame on anyone here, but either it’s a lack of execution or a lack of funding. If we’re saying this is good enough, we’ve got to have a conversation.”
Becker went on to present multiple photos of areas in Apopka that needed significant attention. His premise was that if there are this many things overlooked on its streets and landscaping, maybe there are departments underfunded.
“This is just an hour and a half trip around the city,” he said. “And yet we’re thinking about giving back $400,000-$500,000 of tax revenues that can go to improving Apopka?”
Then Becker showed a photo of the Apopka Fire Department’s massive tower truck.
“This is our tower truck. It’s a 100-foot rig. Two people respond to calls on this apparatus,” Becker said. “These are critical needs.”
Commissioner Doug Bankson was first to respond to Becker, although he found the observations too late to act on.
“I would say this would have been a great presentation at the beginning of our budgeting process to see why it isn’t getting done,” he said. “Do you have an estimate on those things getting done? I thought some of these things were funded. I know in some cases it was because of the transition between the prisoner program we had used to using our own people, and it wasn’t on the list. But as soon as it went on the list, it’s been done. I don’t have the answer for that because it was just presented. But we’ve done an incredible amount in this budget in back-to-back years.”
Mayor Bryan Nelson, who Becker is challenging in the 2022 Apopka Mayoral Election, saw the presentation differently than Bankson.
“It’s great grandstanding in front of the City Council,” said Nelson. “But our parks, recreation, and streets are taken care of. As far as the streets go, we’ve got the survey coming in to look at which roads need to be replaced. We also made sure the crosswalks at the schools were re-painted. Now, it’s probably only been a year or two depending on the cycle, but I wanted to make sure the schools had proper striping for the kids to go across… so we have made a lot of progress. I think if you drive around and go from Orange County to Apopka, I’d venture to say that our [streets] look better across the board. And I think our landscape guy… he struggled this year. Not for lack of trying, but for getting the people that he needs. But I’ll tell you I’ve seen him out there mowing on 441 on Saturdays and Sundays, and on 436. He tries to keep up with what we requested, but we’ve made a lot of progress. We see City Hall and we’re ready to get this all re-landscaped… so things are coming around.”
Nelson thought it might be more productive if Becker simply pointed out these issues with staff instead of making a visual presentation during the final budget hearing.
“A lot of these things are just… he [Becker] could have emailed Edward [City Administrator Edward Bass] and gotten a response on some of the small fixes that are a part of our budget,” Nelson said.
But Becker did not see these issues as small fixes, and according to him, it wasn’t the first time he approached the staff or Council.
“I don’t view this as grandstanding,” he said. “I see these as critical needs. I’ve presented stuff like this before in City Council. I’ve sent emails as residents put their requests forward. What I’m saying is, if this is an execution issue – okay. Let’s manage through that. But for me as a layperson outside looking in as a commissioner, I have to assume that if these basic things aren’t getting done, it has to be a funding resource capacity and other things that aren’t directly related to execution. And if it’s a funding mechanism, which is what I believe, then we should be providing those departments with the proper and adequate funding to get the job done properly. I will not ever say that I’m grandstanding when it comes to properly funding our fire department.”
“He is right about the 429,” said Commissioner Diane Velazquez. “It’s an eyesore. For me, it has been the signage. I’m hoping we can get to that point where we have a sign when you come off 51 that says ‘Welcome to Apopka’ and there is no sign there. We are driving on the 429, which I do use often. That house always catches my attention and that is part of Apopka. We should have done something with that house years ago. And somehow either paint it or demolish it. Those are the only two choices you have with that. But you always have to see that dilapidated house on the highway there.”
Velazquez then turned her attention back to the Apopka Fire Department.
“How much did we [the taxpayers] pay for that engine?” she asked Bass.
“Over a million dollars,” Bass said.
“Is it wrong for the firefighters to say it needs to be staffed with three firefighters minimum?” she asked. “We’re putting two firefighters on a truck we paid over a million dollars for.”
“The fire chief spoke to that,” Bass said. “He laid his plan out and he has his future plans. We applied for some grant opportunities. We’re hoping to see some movement there. We have a great fire department and the safety of our firefighters is very important.”
“I had a conversation with the chief [APD Chief Sean Wylam] yesterday and I did say that to him,” said Velazquez. “I don’t want to keep beating him up, but I want him to commit that he will, at least, address the one important thing the firefighters are wanting… to secure a three-person team at a minimum on this apparatus. I’m glad we’re seeing it and hearing what we paid for it because it should be staffed [with three] – I agree.”
“I understand,” said Nelson. “That’s the union.”
“It’s not just the union,” Velazquez said.
“We got our ISO-1 rating 17 years ago, and we ran the same program,” Nelson said. “So under Chiefs Anderson, Bronson, Carnesale, and Wylam, we’ve always had a two-man squad and a two-man fire truck. So now, all of a sudden, 17 years later, now it’s important we go to three. What changed?”
As Wylam approached the podium, Becker responded to Nelson’s question.
“The thing is the [AFD] staffing levels are at 29, citywide, at any given time based on our last hearing,” Becker said. “I don’t think staffing levels were below that in past years. Now granted, the model hasn’t changed, but at least for me personally, we have always gotten into this idea of ISO, ISO, ISO until recently, and quite honestly, it isn’t because of the union, but the material that came as a result that we were copied on, where it was articulated what that means in terms of staffing on an apparatus… based on the national standards for firefighters where it’s 15-person minimum on these calls. And I know you can only respond to one structure fire in the city at a time when you staff at 29. So, it’s a combination of things.”
“It’s my understanding from your [Wylam’s] presentation that you agree we need to have three per engine,” said Commissioner Alexander Smith. “It’s your methodology how we get there… and you want to make sure it’s done correctly. I understand that if we don’t receive the grant, that we’re going to fund those six that you’ve requested from the reserves – three district chiefs, and three firefighters – and we’re moving in that direction. You said you want to do it the right way… is that correct?”
“Yes,” said Wylam. “We’ve always had two people assigned to this apparatus. One of the first things I did, if you remember, is I augmented manpower from Stations 5 and 6 and put them at Station 1 so we could put an officer on this unit. Assigning the right personnel is vitally important.”
Wylam went on to explain that adding district chiefs was his goal for this budgeting cycle rather than adding a third member to the two-person teams.
“So, we’ve always had two people assigned. Nothing has changed as far as that goes. What I asked for this year as well as last year was a district chief. That’s a safety-related issue. We need supervision. We need control. We have seven lieutenants right now. We have six engines and one tower truck. That’s seven lieutenants per shift. Right now, we have one district chief who supervises all of those people. If we do respond to multiple calls, we want those district chiefs to disperse. We want a safety officer.”
He also used an example of the Orange County Fire and Rescue Department calling on the AFD for assistance.
“We’re handling our call volume. We’re able to respond. We have a contract with the county. We also have a contract in place where we assist when they call us. We responded 175-190 times in the last two years to assist Orange County. How many times did we ask them to assist us? Zero. We’re handling our call volume and more. Only .8% of the fire departments in the country have an ISO-1 rating. That is the litmus test… and for these grants, that’s the litmus test. We’ve applied for them for multiple years. The squad system is in place and it’s worked for 20 years. Again, are we going to grow? Absolutely. Are we going to increase our manpower when it’s necessary? Absolutely. But I can tell you right now, we have a great department. I get it. We’re growing, and we all want to move in that same direction as Chief McKinley. But what my priorities are now, and you want to talk about safety, is the district chiefs.”
Despite the AFD’s success in servicing calls and assisting Orange County, Becker still believes three-person teams are a safer way to approach a fire call.
“I just feel like the line of discussion up here [City Council] is that it’s incorrect thinking to try and get to three-person staffing on the apparatus,” he said. “But I’ll go back to the budget workshop where I asked if money were no object, is that a staffing model you would pursue, and the answer was in the affirmative… so it’s not like I’m fabricating this idea of going to this model because I think you agree we should be going to this model. I’m just using your acknowledgment during the budget workshop.”
“As we increase…,” said Wylam. “But when you ask if we can handle more than one fire call… we’re not Orlando yet. We’re getting there. We’re more like Ocoee right now. Ocoee cannot handle more than one fire call without the help of the county. That’s why agreements are in place. It’s a mutual aid thing, but we are handling our calls. We proved it by showing on a daily basis how many times we are assisting them. They signed a contract with us.”
“Just to bring this into perspective for me, in the tenure I’ve been here, I believe it was three or four years ago we added 28 firefighters,” said Bankson. “We were beginning to see bigger buildings, and so we got the tower truck. I don’t have any issue with our model changing if the structure of our city is changing… but the issue is we can’t do all of it at once.”
Bankson recalls that the millage rate increased already, and giving back a small discount to taxpayers will go a long way during these difficult times.
“My bigger point is we’ve gone from 3.76 [millage] to what it is now [4.1876],” he said. “We extended that because some of the things were still unknown back when we set the temporary millage rate [4.2876] and so we pushed it higher. Some of the things were resolved… so where do we go? We’ve got a taxpayer base that has been through two of the most difficult years. We have restaurants that are closing. Businesses that are closing. People have lost their jobs. People have not been able to catch up. Insurance rates are skyrocketing. Gas is going up. Food is going up. These are practical issues that are affecting every common person’s budget. So again, I’m not arguing against anyone. I respect everyone up here [City Council]. And I want to get to that goal. I’ll just say that. I just want to make sure we’re doing it in a wise way that’s not strangling the cow that’s giving the milk.”
Becker, however, thinks the city has too many critical needs to address, as evidenced by his photos, to give away $400,000.
“What I presented tonight is pictures…. pictures to words I’ve said over and over and over again,” he said. “This is a state of affairs. I harken back to the last budget workshop a year ago. There was a comment made on the dais to say ‘no one will remember a year from now that the grass was 12 inches too high’. These are views I’ve said repeatedly are an issue. I’ll use Lester Road striping as an example. We said in previous years that it would be taken care of… that never happened. So these things, while we say we have a budget for it, I just don’t have proof. I think it would be more prudent to prove that we can get these things done, and then lower the millage…than trusting that things that haven’t been getting done will get done.”
He is also concerned about potentially depleting the general fund reserve should several key grants not come in.
“We have to be careful now, because what we’re saying is we have six fire positions that, if we don’t get grant funding for, will be paid from reserves. We’ve got 10 police positions that, if we don’t get grant funding for, will come out of reserves. We’ve got the fire department venting costs that will come from reserves if we don’t get the grants. We’re treading into the area where we’re treating our reserve as an operational account, not a rainy day fund as we all sat up here and said needs to happen. So we have a lot of people with hands open in reserve balance funds if they don’t get the grants. The $400,000 in tax money, which I think is fair, keeps the tax rate the same as it is today, hedges our bets if we don’t get those grants, which we need to spend on critical needs in our city.”
Smith closed his remarks by reminding the Council that there are residents who need the refund no matter how small it is.
“A couple of residents saw the rhetoric that people were saying about ‘it’s only going to save them $15’, and their comment was ‘$15 may not sound like a lot to us sitting up here [City Council] because they think we’re rich… but to us, $15 means a lot.’ And even if it’s only at tax time when they pay their tax bill, that $15 could make a difference of whether they pay it or not. So $15 is a lot to them and they don’t want us to make a joke out of it in meetings that were talking about it.”
The final vote, despite the debate, ended exactly as it did a week ago; a 4-1 approval with Becker being the lone dissenter.