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Lake Jovita residents seek split from St. Leo

It's been six years since residents of Lake Jovita Golf and Country Club tried and failed to remove themselves from the tiny town of St. Leo.

They're trying again.

Town commissioners received a letter this past week from Ronnie Deese, president of the Lake Jovita Homeowners' Association. He pledged "to do whatever is necessary" to remove all parts of the neighborhood from Pasco's oldest incorporated town.

Why? Some property owners complain they hardly get any services for the extra taxes they pay.

But Lake Jovita residents can't split off by themselves. They need approval from the Town Commission, which is likely to give the proposal a chilly reception. A similar de-annexation attempt was rejected in 2006. "There's no stimulus for us to agree to it," said Mayor Bill Hamilton.

The latest Census says 1,340 people live in St. Leo. The bulk of those are college students attending Saint Leo University. There are just 304 registered voters — split between residents of old St. Leo and those in the relatively new upscale community built in the rolling hills north of town.

Property taxes are a major portion of the dispute.

Lake Jovita has about 850 lots, with a little more than 10 percent falling within St. Leo's town limits. Deese listed 84 homes, and property appraiser records show the neighborhood has 118 parcels in town. But they are a major portion of the town's tax base. Lake Jovita property owners paid nearly 80 percent of the $46,561 in property taxes the town collected this year. (Much of the land in town is off the tax rolls, including the university and St. Leo Abbey.)

Including city fees on electric bills and taxes on cable bills, Deese estimated that the average Lake Jovita resident pays $900 a year in town taxes.

So what do residents get for that money? One of the town's biggest expenses is $95,500 to the Sheriff's Office for extra patrols that are split with nearby San Antonio. The town also provides garbage pickup. "That's all we've ever done," Hamilton said. "That's all we ever plan to do."

Deese said residents outside the town pay $141 per year for garbage services. To measure the public safety boost, he asked the gated neighborhood's guards to monitor how often a sheriff's cruiser stopped by. Over eight weeks, they counted 31 visits.

"From these numbers I conclude town residents living within Lake Jovita get no additional police protection for their additional taxes," he wrote.

St. Leo also provides some streetlight and road maintenance. But Lake Jovita residents can't benefit because their roads are privately owned.

Deese, the finance director for Withlacoochee River Electric Company, lives just outside the town boundaries. His boss, Withlacoochee's general manager Billy E. Brown, is a Lake Jovita resident who lives in town.

Deese's letter doesn't say that the town has steadily lowered its tax rate over the past few years.

After the commission rejected the 2006 de-annexation proposal, a slate of Lake Jovita candidates ran for office to secure enough votes for a split. They all lost. A later compromise reduced St. Leo's property tax rate from $2 to $1.50 per $1,000 in assessed value. It's fallen even further since. The rate is currently $1.30, and next year's proposed budget includes a $1.15 tax rate.

Jack Gardner, the only member of the town commission from Lake Jovita, is skeptical of de-annexation effort.

"I don't know that they'll get it through," he said. "I live in Lake Jovita. I have no problem being a member of St. Leo myself."

Gardner hasn't received any calls from neighbors looking to split. "I think it's basically the homeowners' association that's pushing it, not necessarily the homeowners," he said.

County Commissioner Ted Schrader, whose district includes St. Leo and whose family owns property along Lake Jovita, is staying out of the dispute. As a former San Antonio city commissioner, he said, "I don't need to be stepping on their decision-making process."

Schrader said there are pros and cons to each side. He can understand how Lake Jovita homeowners might feel they're not getting their money's worth. Most services are provided by the county, anyway.

If he were a city commissioner, his argument would be: "There's just no way to put a price on being able to control your own land-use determinations."

Schrader pointed to a pair of large parcels in town that could bring future development to the sleepy town.

St. Leo Abbey owns the golf course south of State Road 52. There are no plans to sell, he said, "but that doesn't mean that's going to stay that way forever." There's also a 56-acre parcel at the eastern edge of town owned by Iafrate Properties LLC, the same company locked in a years-long battle with the county to build a new landfill near the Green Swamp.

Mayor Hamilton added another important land-use concern. He said town officials were very careful when the Lake Jovita neighborhood was approved in 1999. They made sure to prohibit public access to the 150-acre lake, the centerpiece of town.

If the neighborhood's lakeside properties were removed from St. Leo, that could open the door to a public boat launch. "And we would have nothing to say about it," Hamilton said.

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

Lake Jovita residents seek split from St. Leo 09/15/12 [Last modified: Saturday, September 15, 2012 2:46pm]

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