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Lawmakers to push to dissolve city of Weeki Wachee

Rep. Ron Schultz talks about supporting a bill to dissolve Weeki Wachee’s city charter during the Hernando County legislative delegation’s meeting Tuesday as Rep. Rob Schenck looks on in the commission chambers in Brooksville.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Rep. Ron Schultz talks about supporting a bill to dissolve Weeki Wachee’s city charter during the Hernando County legislative delegation’s meeting Tuesday as Rep. Rob Schenck looks on in the commission chambers in Brooksville.

BROOKSVILLE — The city of mermaids may soon be no more.

The four-member Hernando County state legislative delegation on Tuesday voted unanimously to file bills in the upcoming session to dissolve Weeki Wachee's charter.

The Legislature created the city, which incorporated in 1966, at the urging of the owners of the Weeki Wachee Springs tourist attraction, who wanted the name on road maps and highway signs.

The city acquired the roadside attraction, Weeki Wachee LLC, in 2003. And in November 2008, the attraction became a state park.

Since the company is no more, it's time to abolish the city officially, lawmakers agreed. Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, said the Department of Environmental Protection, which runs the state park system, asked him to file a bill to abolish the charter.

It makes sense not just because of the state park status but also because it's the right thing to do for the handful of businesses that are still paying taxes, Schenck said. "We have 10 to 12 property owners who pay a tax to a city that really offers no services," Schenck said.

Such a bill would bring an end to a tiny city with a storied — and troubled — history.

In 2005, the state's auditor general's office found a host of financial and operational problems that auditors said threatened the city's future. Auditors said the city's financial situation may have been hurt by the acquisition of the company.

That's the same corporation that leased the land on which the attraction sits from the Southwest Florida Water Management District, known as Swiftmud; battled the district in court over alleged violations of that lease; and finally agreed to transfer ownership to the state.

State Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, questioned potential loose ends. Namely, does the city have any outstanding debt?

Schenck said no.

After the meeting, both Schenck and Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said an investigation has found that the city does not have any debt.

But Joe Mason, a Brooksville attorney who has represented the company on a number of issues including the fight against Swiftmud, said Tuesday he is still owed legal fees.

He told the Times he does not have the figure tallied. When asked for a ballpark amount, he said "more than a thousand and less than a million."

"It's not a small number, but it's not a backbreaking number, either" Mason said.

Hernando County attorney Garth Coller helped draft a placeholder bill that the Legislature's attorneys can use while drafting the final version. The bill states that any debt would be paid by liquidating city assets not already owned by DEP, though it was unclear Tuesday whether any such assets exist. The language also states Hernando County would not assume liability from the city.

Coller said no one has ever seen any of Mason's legal bills. Company employees who now work for the state, including Mayor Robyn Anderson, have said that no money is owed to Mason, Coller said. Anderson could not be reached for comment.

If such a debt does exist, the state won't be paying it, Schenck said.

"No matter what happens, the state will not be paying that bill," he said. "We're not going to incur any city debt."

Fasano was among critics who advised the attraction to dissolve the city in the wake of the troubled audit in 2005.

"This is something we spoke about years ago after controversial issues that arose," Fasano said. "I'm pleased and honored to file this in the Senate."

In other action, the delegation:

• Agreed to file a "cleanup" bill that would add some territory to the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District that has been in the district's coverage area but was inadvertently left out of legislation passed this year to make the district independent from Hernando County.

The delegation also agreed to add a provision making it clear the district does not have the power to levy a tangible property tax. Schenck said lawmakers never intended the district to have that power but there isn't a clause in the current bill that expressly forbids it.

Spring Hill Fire Chief Mike Rampino said during the meeting Tuesday that the fire board never intended to levy the tax.

• Schenck and Fasano put Brooksville police Chief George Turner on the defensive by criticizing traffic cameras.

Turner had asked the delegation to protect a city's right to have a program in place as they consider future legislation on the issue. But Fasano and Schenck, though quick to say they weren't pointing fingers specifically at Brooksville, said they worry that cities are using the cameras primarily to pad their coffers.

Schenck said constituents have complained to his office about the program, saying they were unfairly ticketed. Fasano criticized out-of-state traffic camera vendors, which get a cut of every ticket, for preying on cities' need for extra revenue

"I see the lobbyists in Tallahassee who represent these companies," Fasano said. "This is a vendor-driven policy that's being pushed throughout the state of Florida and for all the wrong reasons."

The revenue may be coming in, but the program works, Turner said. He offered to give lawmakers statistics showing that accidents at intersections where the cameras are in place have decreased in recent months.

The data also shows that the city is "lenient" when reviewing photos and video to determine when to give tickets, he said, and only clear offenders are cited.

"What it has done is heightened the awareness of the average motorist that red lights mean stop," Turner said. "It makes our roads safer."

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Lawmakers to push to dissolve city of Weeki Wachee 12/01/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 1, 2009 8:13pm]
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