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Weeki Wachee has no money, but owes more than $1 million in legal bills

WEEKI WACHEE — The City of Mermaids is drowning in legal bills, and its coffers are dry.

Now state lawmakers who seek to dissolve the city's charter will have to figure out who — if anyone — will pay.

Joe Mason, a Brooksville lawyer who has represented the city on several legal issues since 2001, submitted a bill this week for services rendered, expenses and other fees.

The total: $1.24 million, with a caveat from Mason that more may be on the way once he makes a more thorough review of his files.

That makes the bill the city owes to a Miami law firm seem like the proverbial drop in the bucket. The firm, now under the title Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, represented the city in its ill-fated attempt to take over a Spring Hill water utility from Florida Water Services Corp. in 2003.

The firm filed a lawsuit against the city last June seeking to recover $58,203 in outstanding legal fees. The suit is still open, court records show. A representative did not return calls for comment last week.

The four lawmakers who represent Hernando County voted unanimously Tuesday to proceed with a bill in the Florida Legislature to dissolve the city's charter.

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

The city acquired the roadside attraction, Weeki Wachee LLC, in 2003. In November 2008, the company turned the attraction over to the state. Now that Weeki Wachee Springs is a state park, the company is no more, and the city never really provided services to a small but growing number of taxpayers, so it's time to abolish the city, lawmakers agreed.

That prompted Weeki Wachee Mayor Robyn Anderson, a former mermaid who ran the attraction and is now assistant park manager, to ask Mason to send the city an invoice.

Mason did, with a letter saying that up to now he hadn't bothered to send a bill "since the City had no funds to pay them, and the effort to produce it would have been futile."

In an interview with the Times before tallying the bill earlier this week, Mason said he never intended to work for free. He estimated the tab would be "more than $1,000 and less than a million."

On Friday, Mason said, "I knew it was going to be a good-sized number."

He said most of the fees are for work related to the legal fight with the attraction's former landlord, the Southwest Florida Water Management District. His hourly rate is $360.

Anderson said she wasn't shocked by the figure.

"After eight years of legal help, a lot of legal help, it's not surprising and most likely it's a fair amount," Anderson said.

• • •

The Florida Constitution states that the Legislature, when abolishing a city, must protect creditors still owed money at the time of the charter's dissolution. State statutes say that when a city charter is dissolved, the county gets the debt unless state lawmakers come up with another plan.

How lawmakers choose to protect creditors is up to their discretion, but it must be done, said Sarah Bleakley, a Tallahassee attorney who specializes in local government law and does lobbying work for several governmental agencies in Florida.

"The Constitution requires it, and the Legislature is not free to ignore the Constitution," she said.

Mason echoes that. Though there have been relatively few charters abolished in Florida history, Mason says he can dig up precedent-setting cases that support his stance.

"There's case law that says that if the Legislature doesn't make provisions for the creditors, the bill is ineffective," he said. "It's unconstitutional, and it does not dissolve the city."

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 taken over by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which is operating the state park. The language also states that Hernando County would not assume liability from the city.

But since the city has no assets, who would be on the hook for the legal fees?

"I guess the Legislature could just pay it," Mason said.

When told of Mason's invoice, Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, laughed.

"I suggest to him not to hold his breath," Fasano said. "We intend to pass a bill to abolish the city of Weeki Wachee because that is what everyone wants us to do. The taxpayers of the state of Florida and the taxpayers of Hernando County won't be paying that bill."

• • •

If all this sounds familiar, it's because concerns about county taxpayers getting stuck with about $260,000 of the city of Weeki Wachee legal bills — the bulk of them to Mason — stymied an effort to dissolve the city in 2004.

Officials floated an idea to create a taxing unit that would tap the taxpayers in the city until the legal bills were paid. Instead, lawmakers passed legislation that capped the city's ability to raise taxes, annex land or condemn property.

Now, though, the stakes are much higher, acknowledged County Commission Chairman Dave Russell, who was a state representative at the time and filed the bill.

"Unbelievable," Russell said this week when told of Mason's invoice. He said the county has to be protected from that liability.

"If there is any ambiguity or anything open to interpretation, it will be scrutinized," Russell said. "The bases need to be covered."

Based on its current tax income, it would take the city three decades to pay off the debt — and that's if every dime of revenue went to the legal bill.

The city's boundaries don't extend far beyond the attraction at the corner of State Road 50 and U.S. 19. There are a handful of businesses within those borders, including CVS, Hardee's and the Quality Inn. At one time, the city had about a dozen residents, but that has dwindled to seven or fewer in the last year as attraction employees have moved off the property.

Last year, Weeki Wachee got about $45,000 in property taxes from a millage rate of 2.1 and an assessed value of about $21 million, records show.

The city's budget summary for this fiscal year shows estimated revenues of $43,200. About half of that is allocated to legal bills, $14,000 to administrative costs and $3,000 to "general government services."

Last July, the city submitted an interim payment to Mason of $73,000, according to Anderson and the letter Mason submitted with his invoice.

"It's really out of my hands," Anderson said. "Whatever Sen. Fasano and that group decides, we'll cooperate with whatever they need us to do."

Rep. Robert Schenck said he would work to protect both the county and the state, though he didn't provide specifics on how that would be accomplished.

"We're not paying a dime of those bills," he said.

Times staff writer John Frank and researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431.

Weeki Wachee has no money, but owes more than $1 million in legal bills 12/05/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 5, 2009 1:25pm]
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