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The City of Tampa’s Unfair Storm Water Solution

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.

The Case Against Go Hillsborough

From As We Heard It
by: Patrick Manteiga
Originally published July 17, 2015

Two weeks ago, this column endorsed a “No” vote on the Go Hillsborough half-penny sales tax increase for transportation. It was the first time in our long memory of our history that La Gaceta endorsed against a sales tax, property tax or special assessment increase when the money was to be used for a range of improving public infrastructure including transportation, schools, public safety, sports facilities, environmental lands, sewer, water and/or storm water.
One week ago, we met with County Administrator Mike Merrill on this topic. We listened to his pitch on why we should give our support. We came away unmoved. We shared with him that we think the plan was designed to appeal to the area’s far right. That it was a transportation plan to appease those who frowned on investing in all forms of mass transit. The plan embraces more roads, wider roads, faster roads and roads for the rich as the only answer to Hillsborough County’s future transportation needs. We told him in spite of the plan’s design, the far right would fail to support it and that he would lose the normally dependable support of the left.
Go Hillsborough’s polling was wrong. A vote on the half-cent tax increase will go down in flames.
Since then, the Tampa Bay Sierra Club added its name to La Gaceta’s as a progressive (that’s code for Left) voice in this community against this plan. We also have been joined by the Hillsborough Tea Party and the Libertarian Party of Hillsborough County. In its first few days, the plan lost the Left and the Right, with more to follow.
The Sierra Club released the following statement:
“Hillsborough County must address our long-ignored transportation troubles. We cannot meet the challenges of today or provide solutions for tomorrow without policies that control sprawl and create smart, sustainable growth.
“Sprawling development inflates the costs of infrastructure, especially roads. For decades, our county failed to control and direct growth. The result was bad for communities, bad for the environment and disastrous for transportation.
“Yet even as we struggle to overcome a legacy of sprawl, the County is considering expansion of the Urban Service Area to bring roads, water, sewer, fire, police and other services to the Manatee County line. Every expansion puts every solution to our transportation problems further out of range. Already inside the Urban Service Area we have 20,000 foreclosed “zombie” homes sitting empty, more than twice that many vacant lots, and more than 45,000 acres of available land. Hillsborough County should not expand the Urban Service Area.
“While Pasco County collects about 65% of the cost of transportation infrastructure through development fees, Hillsborough recovers less than 15%, leaving taxpayers to make up the difference. Hillsborough County taxpayers provide an average subsidy exceeding $10,000 for every new house. Before asking for a sales tax increase, Hillsborough County should require new development to pay its own way.
“The local option five cent gas tax adopted by Pasco, Manatee and almost half the counties in Florida would raise $25 million annually here, enough to cover the cost of our road maintenance. Hillsborough County should adopt the five cent gas tax to pay for road maintenance.
“Every sustainable solution must include a dramatically improved public transportation system. Cars and roads alone are the most expensive alternative. Whether or not the proposed new sales tax revenue would be sufficient to create a viable public transportation system is uncertain.
“Critically needed reforms require no referenda. The Sierra Club of Tampa Bay urges the Hillsborough County Commission to change development policy, increase development fees and adopt the local option gas tax before pursuing a sales tax increase.”
We strongly agree with the Sierra Club but feel they might be too diplomatic. It’s certain that the proposed transportation plan fails to put us on a path to public transportation. It only offers a small piece of the pie to improve the bus system and a non-guaranteed fragment for a demonstration rail project between TIA and Downtown.
Over 30 years, the guesstimate of the half-cent sales tax’s revenue is $3,525,000,000. The revenue would be divided by five governments.
Hart – $881,250,999 (25 percent)
Hillsborough County – $1,946,857,000 (55.23 percent)
City of Plant City – $60,630,000 (1.72 percent)
City of Tampa – $592,905,000 (16.82 percent)
City of Temple Terrace – $43,357,500 (1.23 percent)
There is and can be no guarantee that these governments will coordinate their transportation spending with the others. Consequently, instead of a master transportation plan for our community we will have five plans. Go Hillsborough hopes that Tampa, Hillsborough County, Plant City and Temple Terrace will share 10 percent of its money with HART to enhance the 25 percent piece of the tax allocated to buses. Why not just give HART a bigger piece of the pie?
Go Hillsborough also hopes that the City of Tampa will use a large piece of its pie for some sort of rail project between Downtown and TIA.
But why should Tampa use its money for rail while it has potholes and the County gets to use its money for potholes instead of rail?
Go Hillsborough will say that two-thirds goes to roads while the other third goes to mass transit. The guarantee is only a 75 percent roads/25 percent transit split.
The other big problem we have is the idea that a temporary sales tax is how the County wants to fund road maintenance. Road maintenance should be funded by recurring revenue. The County says it has a huge backlog of road maintenance that is hundreds of millions dollars.
The consultant says traffic is the most important issue concerning voters. That it far exceeds our concerns regarding crime, jobs and the economy. Yet, the County just announced $100,000,000 in additional revenues that will be used mostly for raises not roads. We understand that just two percent of the $100,000,000 will go to maintenance. That’s just wrong.
As Sierra Club pointed out, the Commission failed to pass a gas tax to pave roads and increase impact fees for new intersections and more lanes. A special temporary tax needs to be used to enhance our community infrastructure not band-aid the Commission’s failure to do its job.
This plan lays out a future where we continue to have a bus system that won’t meet the critical mass to provide a fast, far-reaching, 7-day-a-week, reliable mass transit system. It fails to plan and start the implementation of a light-rail system. Instead, it will add more roads and widen existing ones to service suburbs we have yet to build, and patch holes.
We reject that future for our community.
Merrill explained to us that this is the transportation plan the people want. This is the maximum they will pay and that they prefer a sales tax over a gas tax, property tax or impact fees.
He seems to believe it and bases his faith on Go Hillsborough’s work with our citizens in workshops, focus groups, telephone town halls, a poll and the 3,000 likes Go Hillsborough got on Facebook.
The consultants did not want to share the poll and its details with the press, but after a two-week wait, we now have it and we think Merrill is basing his opinion on some shady work of the consultants.
The poll is a mess and the plan cherry picks positive pieces while ignoring more telling data.
Go Hillsborough started its engagement with citizens in November, 2014. It had six small focus groups that lasted 90 minutes each. The groups gave Go Hillsborough a good feel for the direction of the conversation as it engaged more people. Some of the things learned we saw reported in the poll and included in the study’s conclusion, but one thing that was learned from the focus groups and never dealt with again should have spelled doom for passing a tax early on. The report reads, “We discussed the realities of the significant transportation revenue shortfall facing the County, cities and Hillsborough Area Regional Transit and the worsening, negative impacts it is having on quality of life and economic stability. We learned that focus group participants did not make a distinction between state and local projects. Their perception was that transportation funding is flowing and readily available because of the extensive construction on state roads currently underway. Additionally, they express fatigue with “too much construction.”
How does government convince voters to approve more taxes on the premise that it doesn’t have enough money when out area is saturated with road construction? The poll reported 34 percent think “traffic congestion” is the most important issue – a lot higher than second place “jobs and the economy” at 19 percent. But the poll failed to determine why. The question – if congestion got worse in the last five-to-10 years – came back with 78 percent saying yes. Once again, the “why” wasn’t pursued.
If the people think traffic congestion is caused by road construction, they aren’t likely to vote to fund more construction.
Our own driving experience is impacted every day by what seems like never-ending construction. It is the chief cause of the traffic congestion and delays in our driving.
The poll also shows that 95 percent of those polled believe taxes are either “much too high,” “somewhat too high” or “about right,” yet the poll later shows the contradiction of 53 percent supporting more taxes to “pay for traffic congestion relief.”
Go Hillsborough insists that a sales tax increase of a half-cent is the only type of tax voters will approve to fund transportation, but it’s obvious to people in the survey biz that the poll was designed to skew the numbers. The poll asked if one would oppose or support the following ways of generating new money to pay for “traffic congestion relief.” The three questions were phrased this way:
“12. Increase the county sales tax by one-half percent.
“13. Increase the county gas tax by five cents per gallon.
“14. Increase the property taxes equal to about six dollars per month for every 100 thousand dollars of home value.”
These are not apples-to-apples statements. The winner, No. 12, never mentions money. It addresses the increase as a percentage while the other two less-popular taxes mention money – cents or dollars. One identifies the charge is by the gallon and the other addresses a monthly charge. Phrased this way, who wouldn’t approve of No. 12 over the other two? The statement is so vague it’s hard to calculate its cost.
The poll then retested sales tax and property tax in a later question, but gas tax was not retested.
The plan addressed that the “largest amount of money” should be for fixing roads and uses the poll as support for this conclusion, yet the only question asked on the poll regarding this was on roads. The participants weren’t given a chance to say they thought buses, trains, mass transit, dedicated bus lanes or bike lanes should receive the “largest amount of money.” There was a reason the consultants didn’t want the poll to be made public. It’s obvious it was designed to produce a particular answer – that a half-cent sales tax for roads is the only way to have a majority of voters say yes.
As we look at the crosstabs, the percents and the questions, we are more convinced that this tax will fail miserably, as it should.
We even heard that a recent, non-biased, larger-sampled poll of just Democrats showed this tax can’t pass with that group. That kills this tax. Go Hillsborough’s poll shows if you break down the “for or against” the one-half-cent increase in sales tax by party, Democratic support is the only way to pass this tax.
For Against
Democrats 50% 34%
Republicans 28% 41%
Independent 22% 25%
This tax will fail with the voters, so why all the smoke and mirrors to convince the County Commission to place it on the ballot?
The only conspiracy theory we can come up with is money. We believe those who are heading this charge want to be hired to run the losing campaign and continue to be paid by the County for additional studies.
These people have already soaked the taxpayers for close to $1 million for this sloppy work. Why not keep the money flowing? There is maybe another $500,000 in County contracts for more research on the transportation issue and possibly a couple of million for a campaign. The only tracks that are going to be built by this effort is for the consultant’s money train.

Patrick Manteiga’s Opening Speech on Ending the Cuban Embargo

Below is a transcript of Patrick Manteiga’s opening speech before his debate over ending the Cuban Embargo on Tuesday, June 30, at the Poynter Institute. (published in La Gaceta on July 3.)

“I believe most Americans don’t even understand the embargo.
“One of the big issues to address is the language used by embargo supporters. What is commonly called an embargo here is labeled by the Cubans as a blockade. An embargo is ‘an official ban on trade or other commercial activity with a country,’ while a blockade is ‘the act of sealing off a place to prevent goods and people from entering or leaving a place.’
“If U.S. policy was just focused on our trade activity with Cuba, embargo would be an accurate description, but years of study and listening to people in the U.S. and Cuba have led me to believe blockade is a more accurate word to describe U.S. policy.
“The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, the Torricelli Act of 1992 and the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, in combination with placing Cuba on the list of terrorist nations and a host other policies, legislation and rules have combined to stifle trade and travel by U.S. companies and citizens. This spider web of sanctions was also designed to intimidate foreign countries, foreign banks and foreign companies from trading with Cuba, hence the blockade.
“A provision of Helms-Burton requires our trading partners to certify the products they sell to the U.S. don’t contain Cuban raw materials or intermediates. This trade sanction discourages countries from buying anything from Cuba. Why risk the ability to sell goods to the United States, one of the largest consuming countries in the world, by buying anything from Cuba?
“Another brick in our blockade is a rule that allows U.S. companies and individuals to sue, in U.S. courts, foreign entities that have profited from the use of confiscated U.S. property in Cuba. Of course, this confiscated property dates back to the early 1960s. So it’s really unclear to foreign countries and companies if trade or investment in Cuba could somehow be linked to these ‘confiscated properties.’ The goal of this provision is the same as the last, to scare foreigners from doing anything with Cuba.
“Our laws even prohibit foreigners from entering this country if their companies have somehow trafficked in U.S. property confiscated by Cuba. An example is the Toronto-based Sherritt Corporation. Its officers, executives and their families are not allowed a vacation at Busch Gardens or a visit anywhere in America because part of its nickel mining operations in Cuba is located at an old U.S. owned mine.
“Part of our blockade, dating back to the 1960s, is a rule that requires ships that visit Cuban ports to stay out of U.S. ports for six months after that visit. Imagine the extra fees charged by shipping companies to Cuba because of this. Your ship is 90 miles from the largest importer in the world, yet you can’t continue to a U.S. port.
“Until just recently, the U.S. falsely placed Cuba on the list of terrorist nations. That placement caused foreign and U.S. banks that handled Cuban transactions to prove that the Cuban money in their banks wasn’t linked to terrorist activities. How do you prove that? The chilling effect of this rule was recently demonstrated in February of 2014 when M&T Bank stopped handling the banking for Cuba’s UN office and the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C. Only in the last few weeks did a US bank agree to take Cuba as a client.
“Our efforts raised the price of goods, shipping and banking for anything Cuba imported, resulting in Cuba paying more for everything compared to its island neighbors. These laws also hurt Cuba’s exports, handicapping this poor country in building its economy. The U.S. has made a concerted effort to slow foreign investment.
“Our superpower of a nation has squeezed this small country of 11 and a half million people. The U.S. has tried to destabilize and remove the Cuban government at every opportunity. We twisted the arms of allies to back us in our efforts to crush the Cubans but after more than 55 years, they can no longer stomach our failed, vengeful and ugly policies. For 18 years, the U.N. has overwhelmingly voted for the U.S. to end our disastrous policy. The world wants us to drop this blockade. They know, as I do, that Cuba is poor not just for its economic decisions but because of the U.S. blockade and sanctions.
“Our policy has been to starve the Cuban people until their level of dissatisfaction and discomfort is so great that they overthrow their government and replace it with one of which we approve. Besides the fact this policy hasn’t worked, its cruelty should compel our great nation to end it. America is better than this.
“A small and ever-shrinking number of the self proclaimed Cuban exile community and their political friends still support the embargo-blockade but have run out of ways to defend it. They are now only left with telling you that Fidel Castro is too evil to trade with; that he is an absolute dictator who will somehow become more absolute if we sell him Florida strawberries, milk, tomatoes and orange juice. Don’t they know Fidel Castro hasn’t led Cuba since 2008?
“For decades, this group has controlled the information disseminated in America regarding Cuba. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba was no longer our natural political enemy, yet our Cuba policy became more draconian. Americans were told that Cuba’s human rights record was so miserable compared to everywhere else in the world that we had to punish them. We were led to believe that Cuba kept its people in line with machine guns and tanks. Cuba was sponsoring worldwide terrorism. They were our enemy.
“The deception required that U.S. citizens couldn’t travel to Cuba. Cubans who immigrated here for economic reasons had to swear the reasons were political. People who questioned these intricate fabrications were attacked, shunned, politically challenged and were always called communists. Even our media was afraid to challenge this story line.
“Thousands of U.S. citizens have now been to Cuba and the genie is out of the bottle. The reality of Cuba is not what we were told. Cuba’s human rights record is better than many of our good international friends. Women and Afro-Cubans are treated as equals to light-skinned men.
“Gays are not persecuted. Religious diversity is allowed. Education and health care are offered for free to everyone. Does Cuba offer an independent press, no; freedom of political expression as we know it, no. Do we blockade other countries that have these deficiencies, no.
“After visiting Cuba, who comes away believing it is worse than Saudi Arabia, China or El Salvador?
“Cuba’s inclusion on the list of terrorist nations was due to the extremists in the Cuban-American community exercising totalitarian control on U.S. policy on Cuba. Now that the president is no longer following the lead of these extremists, Cuba has been removed from the list.
“I have met the Cuban government from Fidel Castro to the head of the Cuba National Assembly. I’ve listened to ministers from foreign affairs, tourism, healthcare, imports and the economy. I’ve met with all of the head diplomats assigned to the U.S. since 1999.
“I can tell you these people aren’t our enemy, even though current U.S. policy is to remove them from power. These people want to be America’s friend. They also want America’s acceptance that Cuba is a sovereign nation that will make its own future.
“The benefits of trade, travel and normalized relations with Cuba are big for America and the Bay Area. Cooperation on issues of drug interdiction, the ecology of the gulf and Florida Straits and oil exploration will help safeguard Florida’s shores.
“The poor condition of Cuba’s infrastructure offers opportunities for Florida businesses to help build a new electrical grid, cell towers and port facilities. Florida agriculture will benefit. Our construction industry will be able to compete to develop new hotels, condos and golf courses.
“Travel to Cuba adds many more flights out of Bay Area airports. More cruise ships will call Tampa home as they add Cuba as a port of call. Container traffic will increase
“Best of all is that our area will reunite with its closest foreign neighbor. We have been separated for so long that few really remember just how important and special that relationship was.”

A Profile of Dr. Ken Atwater, HCC President

Silhouettes (published May 8, 2015)
by: Tiffany Razzano

Dr. Ken Atwater

When Dr. Ken Atwater first accepted the role of president of Hillsborough Community College (HCC) in 2010, he knew that before anything else he needed to learn as much as he could about his new community.
He’d held leadership positions at community colleges around the country and had nearly 30 years of experience as an administrator when he joined HCC, including his most recent role as president of South Mountain Community College in Phoenix, Arizona.
But Tampa was a unique community and HCC, an urban, multi-campus community college, was a unique school. Plus, he was brand new to the area. So he wanted to know what made it tick and how it could be better served by HCC.
Each of the previous colleges Atwater worked for “had the same values and goals, but they were still very different,” he said. “They each truly reflected the community they served.”
So for eight months, he met with anyone who would talk to him – political leaders, religious institutions, civic organizations, business owners, even administrators from the University of South Florida, the University of Tampa and St. Petersburg College.
“If you’re going to be an effective leader of any community college, then you’ve got to be in there with the community,” Atwater said. “I went on somewhat of a listening and learning tour when I got here. I spent most of my first year reaching out to all aspects of this community.”
It was also a good way to gauge HCC’s role in the community.
“I was able to get a good feeling about how people in the community felt about the college,” he said. “I also asked them if the college could do something for them, what would it be?”
Atwater grew up in Jackson, Tennessee, where his mother worked in a department store and his father worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority.
He attended Murray State University, a four-year college in Murray, Kentucky.
“I always say I would have made a great community college student,” he said.
He recalled being overwhelmed during his freshman year.
“I was a good student, but undecided,” he said.
During one class, which was rather large, a professor and graduate assistant would often walk in, assign students a number, hand them an assignment and then leave.
“I would have excelled in a smaller classroom environment,” he said.
In 1977, Atwater earned a Bachelor of Science degree in speech, theater and sociology. He stayed at Murray an extra year and in 1978 he earned his Master of Science degree in guidance and counseling.
Later in his career, he graduated from the Executive Leadership Institute of the League for Innovation in the Community College as well as the Institute for Leadership Effectiveness at the University of Tennessee. And in 1989, he earned his doctorate in higher education with a focus on community colleges from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois.
It was during his junior year at Murray that he realized what he wanted his career path to be.
“I decided I wanted to be a community college president,” he said.
He had two mentors – friends who were several years older than he – who were working toward becoming community college administrators.
“So I got to watch their careers grow,” Atwater said. “And they would talk to me about what it means to be a community college educator.”
From Murray, he returned home to Jackson and took a job as a counselor at Jackson State Community College. He worked his way up to dean of student affairs.
From there, he climbed the community college ladder.
“These moves were all made with the idea that I was gearing up to become president of a community college, to lead an institution as dynamic as this institution, [HCC,]” he said.
He spent time as dean of students at Catonsville Community College in Catonsville, Maryland, followed by a move to Midlands Technical College in Columbia, South Carolina, where he was vice president for Student Development Services.
Atwater headed back to Maryland, where he served as vice president and dean of students at Howard Community College in Columbia. This was followed by five years as vice president for student services at Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek, Michigan.
He spent nine years at South Mountain before coming to HCC.
These various roles “gave me a thorough understanding of what is needed to lead a community college,” he said.
When he applied for the job at HCC he already knew the college’s then-current president, Dr. Gwendolyn W. Stephenson, who was retiring, through a national network of African-American community college administrators.
“At the time, there were only 60 to 70 African-American community college presidents when I came on board,” he said, “and there are about 1,200 colleges. It’s a very small network.”
So Stephenson was a mentor for Atwater.
“I learned about the college from her before I was hired,” he said. “So what I had to do when I came in was learn the community.”
At HCC, he identified three pillars of success. Community collaboration and partnerships were one of these pillars.
It was something the college was already doing well, he said, working closely with various corporations and industries in the county to offer certification and specialized degrees – from the automobile industry to special programs for companies like TECO Energy and Amazon to the police and firefighter academies.
“These partnerships were already embraced by the community,” he said. “I wanted to build on that. And it’s not just me, it’s the team who constantly works on renewing these partnerships and building on these partnerships.”
The second pillar he identified was student success and graduation completion. He wanted to target not only students who are likely to drop out, but also those who take a few classes at HCC before moving on to a four-year institution. He’s encouraging students to earn their two-year degree before transferring to another school, and also reinforcing the importance of certification or two-year degrees for certain fields.
“If you’re going to work in the 21st century, a post-secondary education is a mandate,” Atwater said, whether you want to become a doctor or a welder. “Whatever choice you pursue as a career, you need that education.”
In nearly five years at HCC, he’s seen the number of students earning a two-year degree increase.
“I judge my success by the number of students whose hands I shake at graduation each year,” he said.
The third pillar for success is the use of state-of-the-art technology on campus. The college is continuously updating outdated technology infrastructure.
“We live in a tech-based world,” he said. “This is the information age. We’re constantly sprucing up our tech base here.”
Over the past several years, Atwater has also become a community college leader on a national level.
He’s currently chair of the American Association of Community Colleges Board of Directors. The organization represents the nearly 1,200 two-year, associate-degree granting colleges in the country. Initially, he was elected to serve on the 32-member board, which eventually elected him chair.
“So I’m at the forefront of advocacy for community colleges on a national level,” he said.
He’s been invited to speak at the White House on the subject and has worked directly with Vice President Joe Biden on the topic.
“It’s a very aggressive leadership role,” he said.
One of the group’s goals at the moment is making it easier for students to obtain Pell Grants by shortening the application process. It is also working to change a policy that prevents individuals who default on student loans from being eligible for Pell Grants.
“That’s the closing of the door on a lot of people who wouldn’t be able to attend community college otherwise,” Atwater said. “We hope to decouple eligibility for Pell from loan default.”
In Tampa, he serves on the board of directors of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, the United Way of Tampa Bay, the 1844 Council of the Tampa Metropolitan YMCA, St. Joseph’s Hospital, the MOSI National Board, and sits on the CEO Council.
He’s also the chair-elect of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corporation.
“I’m really excited about doing this,” he said. “Our goal is simple: What’s best for Tampa Bay?”
He added, “I love being here at HCC and in Tampa. I love what I do.”

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