South Tampa’s District 4 typically leads the city in voter turnout, and this year it will choose between first-term council member Harry Cohen and Kent King, a manager for alcohol distributor Southern Wine & Spirits.
The roots of this race can be traced to the residential canals along Tampa Bay west of West Shore Boulevard.
Cohen, 44, has worked with Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s administration to line up money to dredge all or part of 10 canals. That challenge got harder in 2011 after the Army Corps of Engineers canceled a $1.25 million grant to the city, but dredging started in 2013.
The scope of the dredging was a spur to challenger King, 52, who commissioned a study concluding that more dredging would raise property values enough to pay for itself. (Cohen notes that residents had wanted the canals dredged for 30 years, that dredging began during his term and that he continues to work on the issue.)
More broadly, King says he would be a more effective representative for South Tampa. Cohen, he says, has not done enough to bring spending on roads and drainage to the district and should have done more to oppose new multi-family housing there.
“Sometimes, you just have to say no,” King says. “It’s a peninsula. There’s no more room. Even though they want to live here, you know what? Sorry, sometimes not everybody can live everywhere they want.”
Cohen, in turn, has emphasized his work to strengthen city finances and build consensus.
“In order to get anything done on council, it takes four votes, and part of the job is being able to persuade your colleagues to move in the direction that you want to take things,” he says.
With a stable financial base, he says, the city has begun chipping away at a backlog of needs. He lobbied Buckhorn to put South Tampa drainage projects in this year’s budget, with some success, and has worked on strategies to tone down noise, parking and other problems along S Howard Avenue’s bar scene.
Cohen also has questioned whether King's job would create a conflict of interest that could prevent King from discussing and voting on alcohol-use permits — often one of the council’s most time-consuming and contentious topics.
King says he has consulted a lawyer and does not believe he would.
District 4 is a single-member district that covers South Tampa, including parts of downtown and Ballast Point, Bayshore Beautiful, Belmar Shore, Port Tampa, Davis Islands, Fair Oaks Manhattan, Golfview, Historic Hyde Park, New Suburb Beautiful, Virginia Park, Palma Ceia, Gandy/Sun Bay South and South Westshore.
Tampa City Council races are nonpartisan. Council members exercise legislative authority, passing ordinances and resolutions, voting on the mayor’s proposed budget and property tax rate, and deciding zoning and alcohol sales land-use requests. They serve four-year terms, are limited to two terms in the same seat and are paid $42,078 a year.
HARRY COHEN, 44
Education and work
A graduate of Gettysburg College and the New York Law School, Cohen has worked as an attorney and as chief deputy to Hillsborough Clerk of Court Pat Frank. Since being elected to the City Council in 2011, he has worked part-time on a project to update information technology at the clerk’s office.
Board member, South Tampa Chamber of Commerce and Community Tampa Bay; Committee member and past co-chair, committee for the annual presidents dinner of the Tampa Jewish Federation. Cohen chairs the council’s finance committee and is its representative on the boards of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, Hillsborough County Public Safety Coordinating Council and Metropolitan Planning Organization. Mayoral appointee to board of the Florida Orchestra.
Assets: Condominium, 20 percent interest in companies that own two South Tampa properties, checking and retirement accounts, household goods and personal effects ($712,398)
Liabilities: First and second mortgages on condominium ($196,754)
Source of income: City Council and Clerk of Court salaries, family trust.
Single, no children
KENT KING, 52
Education and work
King works as business development manager for Southern Wine & Spirits. He graduated from Plant High School and attended the University of Florida in 1980 and 1981.
Coastal Conservation Association; Sunset Park Area Homeowners Association; Sons of the American Legion, Post 138.
Assets: Checking, savings and 401K accounts, household goods and personal effects ($174,230)
Liabilities: Loans ($37,887)
Source of income: Southern Wine & Spirits salary
Single, no children.
Q — What would your priorities be on council?
HARRY COHEN — Without law and order, emergency response, clean drinking water and functioning waste and stormwater services, our city cannot function. Any priority list presupposes that these essential services are up and running.
The fiscal health of the city is my No. 1 priority because it is one of a few things over which the City Council has some measure of control. During years of austerity budgeting we managed to double the amount spent in the neighborhoods and yet at the same time limit our reliance on reserves to an amount that kept us consistently over the 20 percent of existing expenses threshold that bond-rating agencies look for as a sign of stability. I am extremely proud that during my tenure as chairman of the city council’s finance committee, the city received four rating upgrades to AAA — the highest possible score.
Over the next four years, I will continue to advocate (as I did this past year) that we replace the money that we took from reserves during the recession. We must be prepared for future uncertainty and have money set aside as a contingency in the case of a major natural disaster or national security emergency.
The council is also a bully pulpit to promote ideas, causes and specific things in our community that deserve to be highlighted. In the coming years I want to continue to focus on our region’s prospects as an arts, culture and culinary destination, because I think that gets lost due in large part to our reputation for proximity to fabulous beaches, professional sports and lively nightlife. This is not only to lure tourists, but also to attract businesses that want a rich and varied quality of life to attract the best workers and their families. The city’s commitment to diversity, respect for cultural differences and civil public discourse should support and buttress this effort.
KENT KING — 1) To improve the quality of life of the citizens, families, and neighborhoods of District 4 and all of the city.
2) To promote policies to encourage small business growth and job creation.
3) To improve the citizen/business-to-city interactive experience, communication and cooperation.
Q — Assess the quality of neighborhood services. What areas, if any, would you improve, and how would you pay for it?
HARRY COHEN — Each year, when the mayor’s recommended budget is published, it contains a blueprint of the city’s priorities for the coming year. If I have done my job well, that budget includes the items that are the highest priorities for my district and the money in the budget is being allocated in a way that is fair and equitable to the entire city. I do not wait for the budget to appear before making the case for the things that matter to my constituents. I am working all year round with the neighborhood leaders and the staff to develop projects and proposals (with dollar amounts) so that the mayor is in a position to include them when the time comes and the funding is available.
Over the past four years this has included money for park improvements, pool renovations, storm water projects, traffic-calming measures and additional traffic signals, canal-dredging, sidewalk construction, repaving projects and lighting to make areas around schools safer. In the coming years, I hope to be able to accomplish more of the same, particularly as our needs grow due to increased population and density and aging infrastructure.
All of this must be considered in the context of tough budgetary choices which reflect our commitment to being responsible stewards of the public’s money. We have to balance the need for services with our commitments to public safety and other necessary expenses.
KENT KING — Many neighborhood services are excellent, but some are average or below average and can be improved upon with internal process, procedural and communication changes. These improvements require little capital expense and should be funded within the standing budget.
Current infrastructure conditions are below average in many areas and need more, and better, repair and maintenance, as well as improvement and modernization. The city is charged with this responsibility in the Tampa City Charter and costs should therefore be funded within the standing budget, or bonded when needed for major, long-term projects.
Q — What changes, if any, would you make to Tampa’s land development code?
HARRY COHEN — We now allow backyard chickens, rescue dogs, and community gardens, and we do not allow certain high-phosphate fertilizer during the rainy season. We still need to consolidate and simplify our land development code so it is easier to understand for both developers and neighborhoods.
One of Tampa City Council’s principal responsibilities related to land use is the regulation of where alcohol is sold — for both on- and off-premises consumption. These are often some of the most controversial and contentious cases because the stakes are very high. Under our current code, these approvals run with the land. Because they attach to the land, revoking the use is akin to an eminent domain proceeding — the city is essentially engaging in a taking of a property right. This makes it almost impossible to ever go back and revisit a decision if it does not work out as envisioned (or as it was presented to council). If we continue down this road, we will eventually end up “wet-zoning” the entire city because whenever something new opens and gains approval, it is essentially adding to the inventory of property where alcohol sales are permitted.
What complicates efforts to change from a land use process to a business regulation is that we already have so many establishments that are vested in the current system. Attempts to reform the system inevitably break down over vested rights but we still have to tackle this issue and look for ways to gain more control over these important approvals — particularly on a go-forward basis.
We also need to do a wholesale review of our parking ratios. Many of the regulations reflect outdated development patterns or make assumptions that are no longer applicable.
KENT KING — I want to implement the recommendations of Mayor Buckhorn’s Economic Competitiveness Committee Report (2011) that would streamline the permitting and regulatory processes to help improve Tampa’s regulatory system. Over time Tampa’s development review and permitting process has become confusing, unpredictable, time-consuming, costly and in some cases onerous for property owners trying to do business in the city of Tampa.
Although some of the ECC recommendations have been accomplished by the administration by consolidating staff and improving technology (Accela System up and running now), there has been little change in our codes and ordinances as recommended by the ECC. According to the timeline of the ECC report, code changes were to be worked on in 2012 and completed in 2013.
A unified development code and technical manual in conjunction with a review of all associated development regulations, will streamline review processes, remove unnecessary requirements and assure regulatory oversight occurs in the right place, at the right time.
Reducing the duration and cost of land entitlements to both the city and property owners must be a primary focus for our city if we expect economic development to continue and prosper in a positive way. Easier processes with expedited plans, permits and regulations will help attract economic activity and accelerate well-planned growth in Tampa.
Q — Do you support giving public incentives to private business, and if so, under what conditions?
HARRY COHEN — I support the concept as long as the incentives are transparent, staggered and verifiable — and make both business and practical sense.
As in most things, the answer to this question lies in the details of the individual agreements. However, I am always more likely to favor something where the incentive (usually in the form of a tax credit) is not triggered unless the targeted venture meets certain thresholds (for example, jobs created and retained at a certain income level for a specific period of time). When City Council approves incentives designed to lure industry to Tampa, it is with assurances that safeguards are in place and that the results can be easily audited.
In the CRA districts, one of my favorite programs is our facade grant program where we match private investment to assist in making tired and old buildings more attractive and in some cases restored to historical accuracy. These are limited to $50,000 but they are an excellent value. There are whole blocks that have been transformed in Ybor City, East Tampa and Drew Park as a result of this program. It is always gratifying when the recipients of the grants come in front of the CRA to show us the results of their projects.
KENT KING — No.
Q — What development restrictions, if any, would you support on the downtown waterfront?
HARRY COHEN — Currently, we have a wide range of uses along the downtown waterfront — many that are accessible to the public and some that are commercial. The new Riverwalk will connect many of these venues in new and exciting ways — and I voted in favor of allowing a limited amount of alcohol consumption on the Riverwalk to liven it up and create a fun adult destination. There are very few parcels left to be developed on the downtown waterfront, so we should scrutinize carefully anything that is proposed. I was aghast when the Arts and Crafts Museum was proposed for the waterfront because that is not the sort of use that embraces the water. Additional marina space and publicly accessible water taxis would be a welcome addition to the area.
KENT KING — Minimize private development, promote commercial development and maximize public access.
Q — What role should public space and architecture play in the continued development of downtown?
HARRY COHEN — A very large role. Council must remain diligent in enforcing green space requirements, encouraging the saving of trees and requiring parks to be built alongside new development. This is key to making downtown more livable.
In the city’s designated historic districts and under the Barrio Latino in Ybor City, we maintain tight restrictions designed to preserve and protect historically significant architecture. In downtown, we do not have the same standards and architectural elements can be difficult to enforce. Most large downtown projects come to us as PDs (planned developments). In these cases, the site plans must be specific and each element of the plan must be built as presented. However, architectural elements are allowed wider latitude for change than issues like ingress and egress, landscaping, buffering and parking requirements. City Council can and should do a better job scrutinizing design elements and making clear that changes will require additional review. That must be done at the time of the hearing.
KENT KING — As appropriate.
Q — What is your assessment of the Vinik plan for the channel district? What is the appropriate role for the city going forward?
HARRY COHEN — I made very clear when I voted in favor of using CRA funds for infrastructure needs in the Channel District that I think this is a wise and appropriate use of our money. The prospect of a downtown live/work/play district containing a medical school, professional hockey, convention and meeting space, the port, and the aquarium is one that should excite everyone in the community. We have a “once in a generation” chance to reinvent a significant piece of our city and our waterfront and we should embrace the opportunity to work with our public and private sector partners to make it a spectacular destination.
The addition of USF medical school and heart institute to CAMLS, Stetson Law School, and the University of Tampa also means that downtown will increasingly be known as an educational cluster. Not only will this attract patrons to our restaurants and hotels, it will elevate the whole area in the eyes of potential employers who are looking for a well-trained, professional workforce.
KENT KING — My assessment is it is a very appropriate plan for that area, being developed by a very capable and well-financed group. As is for the rest of the city, provide for safety and modern, functional infrastructure.
Q — Assess the city’s housing and code enforcement efforts. What changes, if any, would you make?
HARRY COHEN — Code enforcement is in need of more resources; they simply cannot keep up with the workload. This would have to be funded out of the general fund.
I have championed the concept of reducing the city’s hard costs incurred to maintain overgrown and dilapidated property to a lien, which would allow the city to attach the arrears to a property owner’s property tax obligation. The City Attorney has expressed some concerns with this approach but it has been done in other jurisdictions.
KENT KING — Dramatic improvements have been made in the past few years. Yet, as is with land development, it is time for a major review and overhaul of the city code.
Q — Explain why you do or do not support new taxes for a transportation package that includes rail and expanded bus service.
HARRY COHEN — More than any other single issue, I hear constantly about traffic congestion. Because we are an old city and our infrastructure is both antiquated and in most cases designed for far less traffic, this is a problem that will not be solved by simply widening roads and adding more cars. The fact that we consistently appear on the list of the nation’s most dangerous cities for bicycles and pedestrians should also serve as a catalyst to spur us to action to address our transportation needs. All funded road projects should conform to “complete street” policies: calming traffic and providing enhanced pedestrian and bicycle safety measures.
That said, I wholeheartedly support a referendum for additional funding for both rail and enhanced bus service, as well as needed improvements to our network of roads and bridges. I expect to use my new position at the Metropolitan Planning Organization to advocate for such initiatives, and I would campaign for a ballot initiative if there is one on the ballot in 2016.
One cautionary note: Just because the 2010 initiative passed in the city of Tampa does not mean that it will pass again if the city is taken for granted. If the plan to get more votes in the unincorporated county skews so heavily in favor of rural and suburban interests that it shortchanges the urban core, this will be a fatal mistake. City voters will be looking to the details to see that urban traffic congestion is being addressed, and a project list that does not include a transit option will not be able to pass muster. It concerns me that the south Tampa peninsula was not seen as a hub of economic activity by the Policy Leadership Group given the density that currently exists and the projections for future growth.
KENT KING — This will not be a responsibility of the Tampa City Council. I do not support new taxes for a transportation package unless voted on and passed by the people.
To determine If mass-transit is needed, put together a professional, comprehensive plan detailing where it’s going to go; the steps of completion and when; show the qualitative and quantitative benefits and when those benefits will be experienced; the user count and capacity; and how much is, and what’s going to happen to, the money that’s already being used for existing transportation.
Then put it to the people for a vote.
Cohen — Tampa Police Benevolent Association, International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 754, West Central Florida Federation of Labor, Tampa Bay Builders Association, Greater Tampa Association of Realtors, La Gaceta, Tampa Tribune, Tampa Bay Times, Florida Sentinel Bulletin
* The editorial boards of the Tampa Tribune and Tampa Bay Times characterize their conclusions about candidates as recommendations, not endorsements.
Early voting takes place from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through March 1 at:
• C. Blythe Andrews Jr. Public Library, 2607 E Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
• Fred B. Karl County Center, 601 E Kennedy Blvd., 16th floor.
• Jan Kaminis Platt Regional Library, 3910 S Manhattan Ave.
• New Tampa Regional Library, 10001 Cross Creek Blvd.
• North Tampa Branch Library, 8916 N Boulevard.
• Robert L. Gilder Elections Service Center, 2514 N Falkenburg Road.
• West Tampa Branch Library, 2312 W Union St.
Election day is March 3, with runoffs, if necessary, on March 24.
For more information on voting, check the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections website at votehillsborough.org