TAMPA — City solid waste director Tonja Brickhouse left her city job Friday, saying she plans to pursue doctoral studies in economics and psychology.
Brickhouse, 52, said in a resignation letter dated Friday that she prayed about the decision for several months.
"It is clear that the demands of my academic pursuits in preparation for the next phase in my life preclude me from dedicating the time and attention to full-time employment," she added.
Brickhouse has a bachelor's degree from the University of Virginia, where she studied economics and psychology, and a master's degree in public administration from Troy State University.
Tampa's solid waste department serves more than 83,000 customers, has an annual budget of nearly $91.6 million and about 200 authorized positions. As director of solid waste and environmental program management, Brickhouse was paid $128,336 annually.
"I was stunned when I heard about it today," City Council member Mike Suarez said. "She's been doing a great job as far as I can see."
Suarez, the chairman of the council's public works committee, said Brickhouse brought good communication skills and responsiveness to her work with the council. "She never dodged a question," he said. "She never skirted an issue, ever."
Tampa public works and utility services administrator Mike Herr will assume the solid waste director's responsibilities until a replacement is found, city spokeswoman Ali Glisson said.
Then-Mayor Pam Iorio hired Brickhouse, a retired Air Force colonel, in 2008. During her military career, she served at MacDill Air Force Base as the deputy commander of the 6th Mission Support Group of the 6th Air Mobility Wing.
As solid waste director, Brickhouse led the department at a time when City Hall came to grips with a fiscal crisis that last year led officials to approve a plan raising garbage pickup rates five times over a four-year period.
By late 2015, businesses will pay 76 percent more than they did in early 2012. Residential customers will pay 38 percent more.
Officials said they had no choice but to raise rates. Revenue had dropped because of the recession and foreclosures while costs rose for fuel, truck maintenance, health insurance and pensions.
Meanwhile, the city last year bought five garbage trucks that run on compressed natural gas. The new trucks emit about 40 percent less greenhouse gases, last longer and cost less to maintain, officials say. Compared to diesel powered trucks, they're expected to save $1.85 to $2 per gallon in fuel costs, or about $152,000 annually.
The department also is putting a GPS tracking system and radio frequency ID tags in place to better track vehicles and drivers and improve efficiency. Officials project savings of $2 million over five years.