Friday, September 21, 2018
News Roundup

DeWitt: Time has come to dissolve city of Weeki Wachee

Weeki Wachee, one of the smallest cities in Florida, also has to be one of the least democratic.

The city includes several commercial properties at the intersection of State Road 50 and U.S. 19. The owners of these parcels pay almost all of the taxes but, because they are not residents, have no vote in City Council elections, no say in how this money is spent.

Another assumption about democracy — that elected officials live in the place they serve — has also been tossed aside in Weeki Wachee. A long-ago exception in its charter says Weeki Wachee council members don't have to live in the city, and two of the three current ones do not.

Access to public records, most of us would probably agree, is crucial to preserving the integrity of any democracy. In Weeki Wachee, some of the records are locked up in a storage facility; the rest are being kept temporarily at the home of City Clerk Marcia Karcher, who isn't a resident either.

And here's maybe the least democratic part of all: The city's existence has been continued mostly for the benefit of one person, who it almost goes without saying doesn't live there. That would be Brooksville lawyer Joe Mason, to whom the city owes about $1 million in past legal bills.

"Our debt is Joe," said John Athanason, spokesman for Weeki Wachee Springs State Park and a City Council member, though a non-resident.

Last fiscal year, the city paid Mason $45,000, some of which came out of reserve funds because the city only took in about $63,000 in revenue. This year, the city has budgeted $20,000 to pay Mason's bill.

No matter that this debt was racked up mostly in unnecessary legal fights with little apparent benefit to commercial taxpayers. It's not going away.

The law clearly states that if the state dissolved the city of Weeki Wachee, the county would be stuck with Mason's legal bill. That's why local lawmakers backed off five years ago, when they were set to do away with Weeki Wachee, population 3.

Still, when you look at this entire situation, you probably think there's got to be a better way.

And there is.

Go ahead, lawmakers, get rid of the city. The county could assume this debt and pay it off by forming the same kind of taxing district that parts of the county use to put in street lighting or pave roads.

The city taxpayers would no doubt agree if it lowered their bills, which it almost certainly would. For one thing, maintaining a city is an inefficient way to pay a bill. To raise $20,000 for Mason this year, the city has a total budget of $55,000.

No, we're not talking huge sums here. But remember, this city provides almost no traditional public services, and most of the money that doesn't go to Mason is consumed by the task of keeping a city going: paying Karcher's part-time salary, keeping the lights on.

True, Mason might fight any dissolution in court. But that might lead to another source of savings — shining more light on the bill that Mason presented to the city just days after saying it wouldn't be "backbreaking," and that the city accepted without protest. Sure, Mason and Athanason would complain. Both say the city's existence helps to keep Weeki Wachee on the map, figuratively if not literally, as was the case when it was created by the state in 1966.

That's fine. People opposed to dissolving Weeki Wachee can register their objections by voting against, for example, lawmakers who work to get rid of the city. It's the democratic way.

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