ST. LEO — Seven years ago, a slate of Lake Jovita Golf and Country Club residents ran for town commission, amid a push by residents to remove their part of the neighborhood from the town.
The political winds shifted heavily Tuesday, with two Lake Jovita residents winning St. Leo town commission seats by a landslide. James Wells and Robert Inslee, who received 70 percent and 67 percent of the vote, respectively, join Jack Gardner as Lake Jovita residents on the commission, giving the neighborhood a majority on the five-person board.
This time, however, separating from the town of 1,300 may not be on the agenda.
Inslee, 75, a former vice president of human resources for SC Johnson in Wisconsin, said he likes the control that town residents have over matters such as new development. But he said the town needs to review the amount of taxes that residents pay in relation to the services provided.
He told the Times he has no position on de-annexation.
"I think the main thing is the residents of Lake Jovita haven't had appropriate representation on the board based on what they provide the town," he said.
Gardner said he, too, foresees a discussion on taxes, not de-annexation. He said Lake Jovita is a "close-knit" community that feels it is not getting bang for its buck from the town and would like to see a property tax break.
"Sure, who wouldn't?" he said.
The majority of Lake Jovita sits in unincorporated Pasco County. But about 83 homes, or about 10 percent of the lots in Lake Jovita, fall inside the city limits of St. Leo. Those homes shoulder about 80 percent of the tax burden for the town, which levies $1.15 per $1,000 in taxable property.
For a $180,000 home, the St. Leo tax bill is $207.
Some Lake Jovita residents have been unhappy about the cost. They made their case in 2006 to the town commission, which shot down a request to consider de-annexation. The Lake Jovita Homeowners Association renewed the call, saying what residents pay is not worth the services the town provides.
Services include garbage collection and contracted enhanced coverage with the Pasco Sheriff's Office, said Town Clerk Joan Miller. Like most other cities, St. Leo also contracts with the county for animal control services.
Lake Jovita Homeowner's Association President Ronnie Deese argues that the town residents of Lake Jovita are already paying county taxes for law enforcement and homeowner's association dues for guards, and the town has no authority over the subdivision's roads for improvements. So he questions why the town residents of Lake Jovita are paying taxes for increased coverage by a deputy, which is a $78,000 contract with the Sheriff's Office.
"Why are these residents being double-dipped by a town that provides no services? That's the question that needs to be addressed," Deese said. "I want the residents of all of St. Leo to see the numbers so they can decide. If they look at them and say they are satisfied with the services they are getting, they will never hear another word from me."
Commissioner Robert Courtney, whose seat Wells won, said he trusts that Inslee and Wells will seek to work with the town, not separate from it.
Courtney, 85, had planned to run, then changed his mind. He said he decided not to seek another term in part because of his age, but also said he respected the credentials of Wells, a former CEO in shipping, according to his candidate biography. Wells declined to comment for this story.
There is too much at stake when it comes to protecting Saint Leo University, St. Leo Benedictine Abbey, and the town's rolling hills and rural lifestyle for Lake Jovita residents to pull out, Courtney said. He said oversight over development is the major perk town residents get.
"They are both wise men with excellent credentials and experience that will serve the town well," Courtney said of the incoming commissioners. "I think they both realize there are benefits to locally controlled government. They can stay a big fish in a little bowl, or become a little fish in a big bowl."
Compromise has always been a part of the debate, according to Commissioner James Hallett. He said over the years the commission has consistently lowered property taxes in response to Lake Jovita's concerns. In 2000, the tax rate was $3 per $1,000 in taxable property, and has been gradually lowered over the years.
Hallett said he also believes Lake Jovita residents will prefer lower taxes or more benefits, rather than leaving the town.
"I think there's going to be time and energy spent on a less radical approach," Hallett said. "And I expect those issues to come up rather quickly. I'm very open to working with them."
Mayor Bill Hamilton, who lost to Inslee, said he is hopeful that the incoming commissioners intend to work with the town.
"If they take a 3-2 vote on everything based solely on Lake Jovita's needs they could take the town down. But on the other hand, they could be the best thing that ever happened to St. Leo if they continue to work for what is best for all its residents," Hamilton said.