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Weeki Wachee may remain a city, though taxes would plummet

BROOKSVILLE — The city of mermaids may live on after all.

Technically speaking, anyway.

State lawmakers who were intent on dissolving Weeki Wachee's charter now say they might settle, at least for now, for capping the city's tax rate at nearly zero.

That will achieve the main goal of easing the burden on the city's handful of taxpayers — comprised mostly of businesses along U.S. 19 — who pay ad valorem bills each year without receiving services, said state Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill.

"The surefire option is a tax cap of 0.001 mills," Schenck said. "Effectively you're ending the (practice of) property owners of Weeki Wachee being taxed for no reason."

The Hernando legislative delegation voted unanimously earlier this month to file a local bill to dissolve the charter because the former Weeki Wachee Springs attraction is now a state park. Lawmakers were under the impression that the city, essentially the park and a few surrounding businesses, had no outstanding debts.

A Miami law firm sued this year to collect $58,000 in outstanding legal bills. Brooksville attorney Joe Mason also has sent a bill to the city for $1.24 million for services he said he provided defending the city in a lease fight with its landlord, the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

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

Schenck and state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, are adamant that neither the county nor the state will pay the city's legal bills. If Weeki Wachee's tax rate is capped, the city could still bring in revenue, if a minimal amount, and work toward paying off debtors, they said.

The delegation — which also includes state Rep. Ron Schultz, R-Homosassa, and state Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland — is scheduled to meet Jan. 6 in Brooksville to discuss the issue.

Another option might be to shrink the city's boundaries to include just the attraction itself, Schenck said. He also said the Legislature's attorneys have raised the question of whether the bills are valid liabilities.

Still, capping the tax seems the safest route to avoid more legal wrangling, he said. "I don't want to do anything that can be challenged in court and create further legal bills," he said.

Fasano agreed, saying he supports the tax cap.

"The city will continue only for the sole purpose it was created, and that was to promote a tourist attraction," he said.

The city at one point had as many as a dozen residents, nearly all of them park employees. That has since dwindled to just two or three. But the businesses on the tax rolls include CVS, Hardee's and a Quality Inn.

Last year, Weeki Wachee collected about $45,000 in property taxes from an ad valorem rate of 2.1 and an assessed value of about $21 million, records show. With a tax rate near zero, paying off the debt would take decades.

A representative for Squire, Sanders and Dempsey, the Miami firm that is suing the city, had no comment Monday.

Concerns about county taxpayers getting stuck with about $260,000 of the city of Weeki Wachee's legal bills — the bulk of them to Mason — stymied an effort to dissolve the charter in 2004. Officials floated an idea then to create a taxing unit that would tap the taxpayers in the city until the legal bills were paid. Instead, lawmakers passed legislation limiting the city's ability to raise taxes, annex land or condemn property.

Mason said Monday he didn't think the Legislature had the authority then to cap the tax rate.

"But we didn't argue about it," he said. "Maybe we will need to argue about it. That's not to say that if someone walked in my door and offered to settle this I wouldn't be able to do that, too."

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

Weeki Wachee may remain a city, though taxes would plummet 12/21/09 [Last modified: Monday, December 21, 2009 11:14pm]

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