By Tiffany Razzano
Originally published Feb. 24, 2017
Many lawyers and judges envision a career in the justice system from a young age and make that their life’s goal.
Recently retired Judge William Fuente took a different path to the courtroom, though. As a child, he initially dreamed of a career in the medical field.
Born in Key West, he was raised in Tampa. His grandparents hailed from Cuba, Argentina and Spain, and both his parents were born in Tampa. His father was a machine operator for Southern Bakeries while his mother worked as a clerk at Eckerd Drugs.
Fuente attended B.C. Graham Elementary School, Washington Jr. High School and the original Jefferson High School before it was relocated. “All of them had large Hispanic student bodies,” he said.
The whole time he imagined he would go on to a career as a doctor. After graduating from high school in 1963, he attended a technical school through Tampa General Hospital. He went on to the University of South Florida to study biology, and to help put himself through school he worked as an X-ray technician.
He left USF to join the Navy in 1967. First he served as a hospital corpsman, serving first in a naval hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, before being shipped to a Marine Corp air facility in Okinawa, Japan.
When Fuente was discharged from the Navy in 1971, he returned to USF to finish his biology degree. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do at that point in time other than get some kind of professional degree,” he said.
Initially, he thought he would move on to medical school to become a doctor, or maybe he would attend dental school. But by then he was a bit older than the typical medical student, and was married and had two children. So he wasn’t sure medical school was a good fit. He also considered becoming a hospital administrator, but thought it might be too competitive.
He had friends studying law, though. Several of them had applied to South Texas College of Law. This got Fuente thinking. “I thought maybe I would be a lawyer,” he said. So he applied to South Texas. “I got accepted and we trucked up there, my wife Maggi, and my two kids, Daniele and Jaret.”
He later learned that the Texas law school was a haven for future Tampa lawyers. This was because of the influence of Judge E.J. Salcines, who presided over Florida’s 2nd District Court of Appeal. “A whole ton of Tampa lawyers graduated from there,” Fuente said. “Curiously I didn’t know who [Salcines] was until after I applied to school there and was ready to graduate.”
Fuente spent two years in law school. He returned to Tampa in January 1976 for an internship in the Florida state attorney’s office, an internship he obtained with Salcines’ help. That same year, he passed the bar the first time he took it and was hired by Salcines as an assistant state attorney.
He worked for the state for several years before leaving to form a private practice. He was still drawn to medicine and thought perhaps he might specialize in cases involving the field, such as medical malpractice. “But I fell in love with criminal work,” he said. He ran a private practice as a criminal defense lawyer for nearly 15 years, trying hundreds of cases, many of them homicides. He became a board-certified criminal trial lawyer through the Florida Bar in 1990.
Even today, he said, he’ll be out in public – “walking downtown or in the mall or something” – and people will recognize him from representing their cases decades earlier. “I did a lot of trial work,” he said.
In 1994, Fuente was appointed to the Hillsborough County Court as judge by Governor Lawton Chiles. “I wouldn’t have done that because I didn’t believe I could ever become a judge – it was so political,” he said. “My wife urged me and urged me to do it.” He put his name in for the role several times before being appointed judge.
As county judge, he presided over criminal cases, mostly misdemeanors such as DUIs, he said. He recalls one time, though, when he stepped in on a high-profile case from a circuit court judge who fell ill. The case was the murder of Lobster Boy, a circus side show performer whose hands looked like lobster claws and who lived in the Riverview area. His wife had him killed, justifying it because he had been abusive. “There was an interesting legal issue in that case,” Fuente said. “We litigated a lot and I made the decision to allow the issue of self-defense to go to the jury. It was the first time it could be asserted in murder.” The wife was eventually convicted of murder.
After three years as a county court judge, he was appointed to the circuit court. Again, “I didn’t think it could happen,” Fuente said. “My wife encouraged me to apply and I did.” He’s thankful to the many lawyers and others who supported his appointment. “It was very, very humbling.”
For his first six months serving in the circuit court, he handled civil court cases before moving into the criminal trial division where he presided over felony jury trials, many of them involving death penalty litigation. He estimates that he’s tried about 900 jury trials since 1998, with 500 of those in the criminal trial division.
One of the high-profile cases he took on was the murder trial of Dontae Morris, who was convicted of killing two police officers. He also had several other homicide cases pending around the same time. Fuente tried three of these cases.
“It was difficult trying to maintain a sense of fairness for everyone involved, especially the defendant,” Fuente said. In such a high-profile case, it was difficult finding a jury with little knowledge of the case. “So I selected a jury in Orlando and tried the case here.”
He also presided over the case of Richard McTear, who was charged with the homicide of an infant after throwing him from a moving vehicle on the interstate.
Fuente, now 71, retired Jan. 2 of this year. Though there’s a law requiring judges to retire by age 70, the law also allows for judges who have completed more than half of their term by the time they’re 70 to see it to completion.
Since retiring in January, he’s spent time catching up on life, such as doctor’s appointments. He and his wife plan to spend time at the beach and to travel, though. They’re considering a trip to Cuba.
Fuente is one of several judges to retire this year. A handful of them all attended South Texas College of Law. So a group of Tampa attorneys, judges and others within the local legal system organized an event to honor them Jan. 12 at Carne ChopHouse. More than 500 people attended, Fuente said.
“It was amazing,” he added. “I just want to thank all the people involved in that. I’m so thankful for the people who put that together, who donated money to put it together. My wife and I appreciate everybody’s efforts.”
Retirement has been an adjustment for him, he admits. “The courthouse has been my and my wife’s daily environment since 1976,” he said. “That’s a long time.”
Silhouettes: by Tiffany Razzano
An eighth-generation Plant City resident, Shelby Bender remembers the exact moment she recognized the importance of community.
As an elementary school student, one of the teachers would enlist the help of local children to collect money for the American Heart Fund. Bender and her sister were selected one year and helped that teacher for as long as she can remember. Dressed in their Sunday finest, the group of students went door to door, asking their neighbors to donate to the cause. Afterward, they’d meet at the TECO community center for refreshments and to discuss how much they collected. “That was probably the start of my being active in the community,” said Bender, executive director and president of the East Hillsborough Historical Society. “I’ve always been passionate about giving back.”
Aside from spending a few years in Gainesville while her husband attended college, Bender has spent her entire life in Plant City. “Some people have real strong roots somewhere and they’re well established,” she said. “I’m one of those people.”
When she and her husband returned to their hometown, they took over the dry-blend fertilizer manufacturing company his family had owned and operated for decades in Plant City. Though she went on to earn her associate degree from Hillsborough Community College while her children were little, she decided not to pursue a bachelor’s degree at the time. “I had my full-time job with the family business. I was happy with what I was doing and the family was comfortable,” she said.
Then, after running the business for 30 years, Bender and her husband decided to shut down the manufacturing plant. The company had been in existence for 81 years. “At one point in time, Hillsborough County was a very large agricultural community,” she said. “But things change.” Forty years ago, there were “eight or nine dry-blend fertilizer companies” in the county, she added. “Now there are none.” Her family’s company at one time had been located in the heart of the city, near the railroad tracks, but Plant City’s midtown expansion forced them out.
Bender was 56 years old when the company closed down. “We had to reinvent ourselves and start over,” she said. “Sometimes in life you just have to write a new chapter.”
She decided to go back to school and complete her degree, earning a bachelor’s degree in general studies from St. Leo University and, later, a certificate in nonprofit management from the University of South Florida. She also worked for a year as finance secretary for Mulberry High School.
Even while running the company with her husband, she was always heavily involved with community activities, spending much of her time volunteering for the East Hillsborough Historical Society. Running her own business gave her the flexibility to spend a significant amount of time with the historical society. In fact, for years she was in charge of many of the duties she takes on today as executive director and president of the group. “When you own your own business, you can make your own hours,” Bender explained. “But I no longer had that flexibility while working for the school.”
So she and the historical society decided to get creative. The group always had an administrative person working part-time in the office. When that role opened up, they decided to revamp it, creating the executive director position for Bender. “I wanted to do this and I knew I could do this,” she said. “We just had to approach the role a little differently.”
As executive director, she works out of the historic 1914 Plant City High School Community Center – her former junior high school – which houses the EHHS office, Pioneer Museum and Quintilla Geer Bruton Archives Center.
Bender has always been interested in local history, as well as genealogy. She remembers as a young girl her grandmother telling her about their family history. “She was very influential. My own interest in our family history just kind of went from there,” she said.
Learning about her family, “who they were in reality, what they did, what kind of people they were,” connected her to her roots and strengthened her sense of self.
She’s traced her family lineage as far back as the 1600s, to England, Scotland, Germany and Russia. “As you keep going back, you develop an interest not just in local history, but in history throughout time,” she said.
She added, “It’s really interesting to see how they existed. A person might think we’re in hard times now, but no, we’re not in hard times.”
She’s also built up a roster of private clients, especially in the realm of adoption research. For nearly 25 years, Bender has worked with adoptees and birth families to make connections.
Bender has also co-authored four books on Plant City history and Tampa cemeteries. In fact, in addition to genealogy and family histories, her other specialties include historic preservation, the history and care of cemeteries and funerary art. “A cemetery is a true history of a community,” she said.
She serves on several other local organizations as well. She is chair of the Plant City Historic Resources Board. The board oversees three local and national register historic districts. She also serves on the Hillsborough County Historic Preservation Grant Panel and the Plant City Main Street Board of Directors, and is secretary of the Florida State Genealogical Society. And as a nearly nine-year member of the Hillsborough County Historic Advisory Council – and recently member emeritus – she’s helped establish numerous historic markers throughout the county by recommending and finding sites with historical importance to the community. Some of these locations include the Hillsborough County Cemetery, which served as a pauper’s cemetery, and Florida College in Temple Terrace.
The EHHS also hosts numerous events throughout the year in an effort to reach out to the community. They organize Pioneer Heritage Day each November, holding an open house at the 1914 Plant City High School Community Center. The organization is also gearing up for their upcoming fundraiser, one of their biggest of the year, Bender said, running a strawberry shortcake booth at the Florida Strawberry Festival.
In addition, the group sponsors and runs a number of workshops for the community, from genealogy to cemetery care and preservation. The next workshop is “Copyright Workshop for Authors, Artists and Musicians,” to be held Saturday, Feb. 4, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., at the 1914 Plant City High School Community Center. The workshop is free and preregistration is required.
Then, on Saturday, Feb. 11, 7 to 10 p.m., the center will host the Florida Opry’s Country to Pop tribute show to country music legend Patsy Cline.
The organization tries to reach the community any way that it can, Bender remarked. “It’s important that we all remember where we came from,” she added.
By: Tiffany Razzano
Originally appeared in the July 8, 2016 edition of La Gaceta Newspaper
Musician. Actor. Swing Dancer. Pilot. Marksman. Photojournalist.
Jim Webb is used to wearing many hats. “I’ve lived four lives in one so far, easily,” he said.
But these days he has honed in on just one passion: growing his business, The Webb Works. With an ear for storytelling, Webb specializes in producing legacy and web-based videos for businesses, governments and families. So he’s pushed his other talents and interests to the side for the time being to focus on sharing these stories. “Everybody’s got a story and I love helping people tell it,” he said.
Still, his varied interests come in handy whenever he’s trying to connect with the individuals who are featured in his videos. “I’m rarely not able to find common ground with people,” he said. “And as a photojournalist, I’ve had the opportunity to be out and meet different people, and I use these skills in my business and to connect with people. I’ve learned to draw people out. I have at least a little bit of capacity for showing interest [in others] and getting people’s stories, because everybody has one. It all plays right into my curious nature.”
Webb grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. As a child, his mother enrolled him and his siblings in music lessons. In high school, he went on to join the marching band, performing in the brass section. He was also an athlete, lettering in tennis, cross country track and swimming.
He went on to study at Kent State University where he joined the marching band, was a diver on the swim team and also a member of the cheerleading team. “Boy was that a smart move on my part,” he said. “I got to be around some of the most beautiful women on campus. And when we went to other colleges, I got to be around some of the most beautiful women on their campus.”
During the summer of 1973, he headed to Wisconsin to perform with the legendary Madison Scouts Drum and Bugle Corp. That’s all it took for him to be “hooked” on drum corp. He performed with them through 1975, his last year of eligibility since he had turned 21. But that year the group was the undefeated Drum Corp International. He stayed on as an instructor for an additional five years. “It’s an art form,” he said, “and I haven’t seen a single marching band in high school or college that wasn’t affected by it.”
Decades later, his time with the Madison Scouts still affects him. “I draw on that daily for inspiration,” Webb said.
An avid photographer since a high school student – he borrowed his mother’s Kodak Instamatic camera as a teen “and she never saw that camera again” – he was offered a job taking photos for an NBC affiliate in Madison. After five years, he moved to Toledo, Ohio to take a job as a news photographer for the PBS station there and also to be closer to home.
In 1984, he accepted a position as photojournalist for WFLA News Channel 8. “I was in the news department there, shooting news on film, long before video cameras and live trucks and all of that,” he said. After a year and a half, he was promoted to chief photographer, overseeing special projects and the department. It was a time of growth at the station, he said. Staff doubled and the station added a number of special shows and weekend editions.
Webb has also remained involved with his many passions since moving to Tampa. He’s served as chairman of the board for the Suncoast Sound Drum and Bugle Corps and volunteered to work with the Robinson High School marching band.
He took up swing dancing, something he learned as a child, and not only did he frequent local swing dance events, he taught it as well for several years.
He continued to play music, forming a band – a 12-piece rhythm and blues revue – with other journalists for the Society of Professional Journalists’ Battle of the Media Bands, which raised money for its minority scholarship.
He took flying lessons after years of flying radio-controlled planes and spending time up in the air as Channel 8’s primary photographer. He even went on to fly with the Blue Angels. And because of a video he shot for a friend, he developed an interest in skeet and trap shooting, becoming a decent marksman.
Webb is also an actor and does voiceover work. He’s the official voice of the Tampa Bay Arts Center Entertainment Network. He’s appeared on stage at Ruth Eckerd Hall in productions including “Guys and Dolls” and “South Pacific.” He also appeared in the short film “The Wallet,” which was selected for the Gasparilla International Film Festival. (Several other films he’s filmed himself have appeared at the film fest as well.)
All the while, he worked for Channel 8. Working for the news station, he traveled the country – sometimes the world. “I got to tell stories and meet the most interesting people in the places that I’ve worked and get paid for it,” he said. He’s met everyone from actors to national leaders, from James Earl Jones to President Barack Obama and Colin Powell. He’s travelled around the country and to places such as the Kremlin, in Russia, and the Andes Mountains. “The list goes on and on. I’ve had many, many brushes with greatness. That camera has been my passport to travel to many places and do things I never would have done.”
But it wasn’t all fun for Webb. He also had to cover difficult stories about death and violence. “I’ve seen the very best and the very worst of the human condition from behind my camera,” he said. He recalls that when working in Toledo, every spring as the Toledo River thawed, a body would come floating to the surface. He’d inevitably have to cover this news. “I’ve recorded things, I saw things that I wouldn’t wish on anybody,” he said.
This is part of the reason he decided to leave the news business and create The Webb Works to focus on legacy and corporate videos. He wanted to make videos that told happy stories and touched people.
He recalls a series on aging that he filmed while working for PBS in Toledo. “I knew then that some of the people I was recording wouldn’t be around in 10 years,” he said. That’s how he realized the importance of preserving people’s stories. “You don’t want to wait until it’s too late. You want to get the twinkle of their eye or the sound of their laughter before you can’t. Those are the treasures”.
While he creates videos for corporate entities such as Tampa General Hopsital, WellCare and the University of South Florida, “the legacy videos are what I live for,” he said. “When I get my chance to sink my teeth in a good story, I want to record it. And there’s a lot of them slipping away from us.”
Webb currently operates out of a studio space on West Shore Boulevard. He’s recently teamed up with a film photographer, Hallie Ladd Heck, who also rents space in the same building. The pair are building out a larger, 1,400-square-foot studio with a green room and meeting space. He’ll be able to offer photography classes and swing dance lessons in the larger, open space. “It’s going to be really nice when we’re done in a few weeks,” he said. “There are so many possibilities.”
He’s also writing a book. It’s part memoir, sharing his life story, and part encouragement for others to pursue their passions. “I’ve been fortunate enough to do this my entire life,” he said. When he meets college students, he has one piece of advice for them: “Do what you liked to do as a child. If you do your passions, then you’ll never work another day in your life.”
He added, “Then I like to modify that a little bit. I tell them to do what you did as a kid that got you into trouble, but kept doing anyway.”
By Tiffany Razzano
Published Sept. 16, 2016
Growing up in Brazil, Ester Venouziou and her family only shopped at local businesses. At the market, they could find everything they needed from produce and meat to clothing.
At the end of these shopping trips, Ester and her sister would be allowed to stop to buy books and comics. “It was like our reward,” she said.
Her parents also owned a business, a fabric store, Importadora Jenny, with three locations. As a child, Venouziou would accompany them to the store, helping them wrap purchases. Later, after the family moved to New Jersey when she was 12 years old, her parents switched gears. Rather than running their own shops, they represented Brazilian fabric companies in the United States, working hard seemingly around the clock.
This had a profound effect on their daughter. “I didn’t want to own my own business,” she said. “I saw my parents working all the time. That wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to go to work and come home.”
She headed to Boston University, where she studied journalism and psychology. When she graduated, she came to Florida for work. First bouncing back and forth between newspapers in Jacksonville and Fort Lauderdale, and then landing in Gulfport in 2003. She moved to the area to work for the then St. Petersburg Times as a copy editor and designer, also doing a bit of writing for the paper.
In 2008, her parents traveled from New Jersey to visit her. While Venouziou was at work, her parents would keep themselves busy by going to the mall or eating at chain restaurants. She asked them why they didn’t frequent, instead, some of the many local, independently owned businesses. They told her that they simply didn’t know where to go. “If you go to Olive Garden, you know what you’re going to get,” she said. “It may not be a great meal, but you know what to expect.”
Personally, she had been interested in supporting local businesses since the late 1990s, during her second move to Fort Lauderdale. She had lived there in the early 1990s, but when she returned in 1999, she discovered that many of the smaller businesses had closed down and were replaced by national chain stores. “The whole feel [of the city] changed,” she said. “It didn’t feel like Fort Lauderdale. It just felt like every other place.”
So she made her parents a list of suggestions for Gulfport and St. Petersburg. Where to eat. Where to shop. Where to visit.
She posted her list on Facebook and friends suggested their own ideas. The list grew and Venouziou began to organize the businesses by category. Then she decided to create a simple website where she posted her lists and included information about each business.
This is how LocalShops1 was born. “I really didn’t know what I was doing,” she said. But it was fun for her, a passion, really, and she recognized the importance of supporting locally owned businesses. Initially it was more of a hobby for her, though, and often, she’d lose money on the endeavor. “I was just having fun,” she said. “I was losing money, but I didn’t care. I was just having fun. Instead of going shopping, I was spending it on the business.”
She founded LocalShops1 just as the “buy local” movement was starting to get off the ground nationally. When she first turned her personal focus to small businesses nearly a decade earlier, “it wasn’t really a thing,” she said.
This was before the recession hit, though, changing everything. “It made people think about being loyal to local companies, and a lot of people were starting their own businesses,” she said. “They were laid off and looking for a job and there weren’t any.”
Then, in 2011, Venouziou was laid off from the Times. So she decided to focus full time on LocalShops1. “When I got laid off, I was like, ‘I can’t lose money. I can’t support this,’ ” she said. “That helped me get more organized and it helped make LocalShops1 better.”
Around this same time, American Express launched its Small Business Saturday campaign, which supports shopping at local businesses during the winter holidays. That not only helped the “shop local” movement on a national level, but also put more attention on LocalShops1.com.
Venouziou and her team at LocalShops1 have certainly done their research. According to their website, dollars spent at local indie shops are more likely to stay within the local economy. They refer to a report by the Tampa Independent Business Alliance, which says that if all taxable purchases made in Hillsborough County on an average November shopping day were made at local businesses, it would have a $28 million impact on the local economy.
So she refocused her grassroots mission of promoting and supporting locally owned businesses. She put together an informal advisory council comprised of small business owners she trusted. “I wanted them to give me an idea of what they want as businesses,” she said. “Why would they waste their time doing something they don’t care about just because I think it sounds cool?”
She tightened up the membership structure offering a variety of services to businesses, artists and non-profits at various levels. It didn’t take long for her membership to grow. In 2011, she had around 150 members. Today that number stands around 350. “It feels like it’s more stable. They’re staying longer,” she said. “Looking back, I don’t think I was servicing people as much as I could have been.”
Venouziou also revamped events. Prior to her focusing on LocalShops1, events were held sporadically. She began offering networking events on a monthly basis. (The next one is Oct. 13 at Rococo in St. Petersburg.) These free networking meetings are open to the public as well as local businesses.
She also launched three signature events. Shopapalooza, inspired by Small Business Saturday, takes place at St. Petersburg’s South Straub Park. Typically, she’s held the event, which features more than 100 local vendors, the Saturday before Thanksgiving. This year, she’ll hold it two Saturdays: Nov. 19 and 26.
In August, they hold the Best in the Biz awards, to coincide with LocalShops1’s anniversary, and each spring is the Top Local Chef competition. And two and a half years ago, Venouziou launched the Live Local! magazine, featuring LocalShops1.com’s members.
Her latest endeavor is a LocalShops1 pop-up shop in Gulfport, which opened earlier this month. The bungalow features a front space which is rented out to a different artist or small business on a monthly basis for $300-400, depending on the time of year. “They come and go as they please,” she said. “I tell them to treat it like their own shop.” So far, the space is booked through February, aside from January.
There’s also space in the center of the store available for rent during First Friday and Third Saturday art walks and the weekly Tuesday market. “Think of it like vendor space at an event, but it’s indoors,” she said, adding that there is some outdoor space available as well.
Pop-up stores like these are popular in larger cities, like New York, she said. And it’s just another way to showcase local talent and businesses, she added. “I’ve been reading about them in other cities and thought I could do one here, on a smaller scale, obviously, based on my budget,” she said.
If this goes well, she’d like to open similar shops in other communities in the Tampa Bay area. It would need to be a walkable community, she said. “I don’t see this working on U.S. 19 anywhere,” she said. But she’s eyeing St. Petersburg, particularly in the Warehouse District, and says communities like Dunedin and Safety Harbor would be perfect for shops like these.
She’d also like to increase LocalShops1’s presence in Tampa, but needs to find the right partner to represent the company on that side of the bridge. “I’d like to be more in Hillsborough, but it’s hard to be over there, too,” she said. “I can’t be everywhere and I haven’t found somebody to represent us in Hillsborough yet, basically to be me over there.”
So for now, she focuses on her Pinellas County endeavors with one goal in mind. “I just want to get shoppers to get to know the businesses better,” she said.
From As We Heard It, by Patrick Manteiga
Printed Aug. 21, 2015
We have continued to meet with City officials, City Council members and others to understand the City’s proposed Storm Water Utility’s Capital Improvement and Maintenance Program and its associated large fee increase.
We are disturbed by our conclusions and strongly believe that Tampa property owners have been incorrectly charged for the past 12 years and that the old fee structure’s failings will only be magnified by the new proposal.
In its present form, the City Council must vote against it, as the City’s methodology for fee collection and determining each property owner’s fair share are not defendable in court by its own standards.
We are disappointed by this utter mess and lack of oversight over the years from which it was created. This plan is devoid of accountability, ignores science and shows a complete disinterest from staff and the mayor in creating a fair and equitable system.
They’ve squandered this community’s unity by proposing this unfair system. The public is ready to pay more for permanent fixes to local flooding. This plan is so bad and ripe for a successful legal challenge that it would be fiscally irresponsible to pass it, no matter how great the desire to fix our storm water problems.
Here is the biggest of many problems.
The City chose in 2003, and is following the same program now, to fund the storm water improvements by imposing a special assessment on properties. To use this form of fee collection, the City must confer a “special benefit” to “each property being assessed” and “the costs assessed must be fairly and reasonably apportioned among the properties that receive the special benefit.”
The cost should be apportioned fairly and reasonably “among government and non-government parcels.”
The City uses a unit called ESU or ESFIA to express a certain amount of storm water runoff that is expected to be generated by a certain amount of impervious surface (roof, paved driveways, paved porches, sidewalks, etc.).
The City is supposed to calculate all the ESUs in the city or storm water basin of private and government property. To determine the amount to charge for each ESU, the City must divide the number of ESUs into the amount of money needed to fund the capital improvement or maintenance, the cost of billing property owners, financing and other costs, factoring in the number of years the program will be in effect.
The City failed to calculate the amount of ESUs on government property. The City is not counting highways, roads and streets owned by the City of Tampa, Hillsborough County and the State of Florida, even though the ordinance is clear – “A storm water fee may be levied on and collected from all government property that is developed property within the storm water service area to fund all or a portion of the storm water service cost … “
The consultants who built the case for this type of fee were also clear when they wrote, “… recommend the fair and reasonable apportionment of cost among both government and non-government parcels that are benefitted.”
By not calculating the amount of ESUs on all government property, the City has falsely inflated the cost of an ESU. This is where the imbalance we’ve been writing about the past two weeks occurs between low-income, low-value areas of town vs. high-income, high-value sections.
If the government were to calculate the correct number of ESUs and the appropriate price, 30 to 50 percent of the total fees would likely come from government property.
This means these fees would be paid from general revenue, which in the City’s case comes mostly from property taxes. This spreads the burden of storm water cost for government land to more Tampa property owners and businesses. Their share of these costs is based on the value and use of their property. The rich pay more, the poor pay less and non-profits pay nothing.
This balances against the way the City calculates the storm water assessment for private property. The City only calculates the fee based on impervious surfaces. Low-value buildings are charged as much as high-value buildings of the same roof size. A million-dollar condo in a high-rise pays a lot less than a $150,000 West Tampa home and non-profits will pay the same rate as everybody.
Last year, the City was billed and paid $207,255 for storm water fees. That covers 5,757 ESUs, or 19 million square feet of impervious surfaces. The City admits this number includes no roads. The City has 2,800 paved lane miles. With an average of a 10-foot width, that’s 148 million square feet, or 44,664 ESUs. The City should have been billed at least $1,607,904 more and the amount billed as storm water fees to private-property owners should be $1,607,904 less.
This is under the old rates. Under the new proposal, the disparity of funding from property taxes (progressive taxation) to storm water fees for private property (regressive taxation)would be significantly higher if the City continues to violate the rules. The annual cost of one ESU could be as high as $98.04, making the storm water fee for government roads $4,378,858.
There is a host of other problems.
The capital funding scheme lumps 80 percent of Tampa into one basin and each property in that basin should receive a “special benefit.” This really can’t be justified since the total cost of the projects will vary so greatly depending on which area of Tampa is being fixed. The benefit also varies greatly from neighborhoods that routinely flood vs. areas that never flood.
Here are assumptions in the resolution used to justify this one-rate-for-everyone approach that are false.
• The Central and Lower Basin area is a huge district that the City states will derive a “special benefit” from the improvement paid for by the fee based on the fact that each property is hydrologically connected to the City’s storm water systems. The City would have a difficult time proving that the assessed fee per property is associated with the level of the “special benefit” received.
Dividing the city into three, four or five districts allows the benefits to more closely match costs. Even the maintenance fee should be calculated by the districts. The cost to maintain pumps and regular dredging of channels in South Tampa will raise the price-per-gallon of storm water moved to a consistently higher price than the systems of East Tampa and West Tampa.
East Tampa has minimal flooding problems and the ones it has are relatively inexpensive to rectify, as property is cheap for additional storm water retention ponds. The area is higher than other parts of Tampa so gravity, rather than pumps, can be used to transport storm water.
This one-size-fits-all investment in the storm water system isn’t likely to be reflected in increased property values or rental rates of East Tampa or West Tampa, but ending the flooding of South Tampa streets will add to property values, lower property repair costs, add value to rentals and increase the enjoyment on use of one’s property.
The City is already divided into 39 storm water sub-basins. The data and maps exist to divide Tampa into districts that make sense so costs of projects can be more accurately reflected by the ESU rates.
• “Property owners are experiencing an increase in the amount of standing water following a rain event.” Not true. Flooding has decreased in Ybor City and many parts of East Tampa. South Tampa has had areas that have always flooded. Some areas might have worse flooding during a typical storm, but some of that is caused by local road construction and is temporary. The City has no study to back its statement.
• “Storm water improvements are necessitated by the existence of impervious area.” Storm water runoff comes from pervious and impervious surfaces. This is a scientific fact. The digging of ditches and retention ponds happens on golf courses, farms and pastures to drain the land after heavy rainfall. Runoff from yards and other green spaces can be generally more harmful as a discharge if untreated than runoff from a roof. Runoff from pervious surfaces often carries fertilizers, pesticides, silt and organic matter. This nitrogen-rich runoff causes algae blooms in our lakes, rivers and bay, killing fish and harming sea grasses.
When yards and fields are saturated, as they are now, they are incapable of absorbing water. In this soaked state, storm water flows from pervious and impervious surfaces at almost the same rate.
Sarasota uses impervious and pervious square footage to calculate runoff. One ESU of impervious surface is equal to .148 ESU for pervious surfaces. Sarasota doesn’t ignore the science but uses it to more accurately measure the storm water impact that property owners are billed.
• “It is fair and reasonable to impose the Storm Water Improvement Assessments only against Developed Property containing 100 square feet of impervious area.”
All parcels should receive a charge for the reasons stated above. Every parcel, whether it has impervious area or not, should be charged a fee. Additionally, all land in Tampa has been developed or modified from its original state, therefore it is all developed.
• “The cost of measuring or verifying the impervious area for each individual single-family parcel greatly exceeds any benefit to be derived from individual measurement and verification.” The City has a responsibility to make its bills as accurate as possible. The Property Appraiser’s data has lots of detail and should be robustly used. If requested, the City should check its facts.
Currently, the City makes a property owner prove that the City’s guesstimate is wrong and the City will only accept a survey by a professional land surveyor or an engineering report by a professional engineer. That high and expensive level of proof from an agency that sees no financial “benefit to be derived from individual measurements.”
There is also a dangerous provision in this proposed resolution that allows the Storm Water Department to impose the storm water improvised assessment at a higher or same rate if the City Council tries to reduce the fees later on. This point should be weighed carefully by Council. Once you pass this 30-year fee, there is no going back.
The City also needs to rework the portion of the ordinance that gives some properties a 100-percent credit for having their own storm water collection and retention systems. The rules don’t address regularly recertifying private storm water systems to prove they function as originally designed. Fees for their credit applications need to cover staff costs to randomly visit sites and verify no runoff leaves the properties.
We normally don’t use so much ink for one subject , but the Tampa Tribune and Tampa Bay Times have abandoned their responsibility to expose this issue and to advocate for fairness. Their absence compelled us to step up our coverage.
The next, and final, hearing on this huge storm water fee increase of 400 percent will be during City Council’s meeting in old City Hall on Thursday, Aug. 27, at 9:30 a.m.