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Weeki Wachee will stay a city, for now

BROOKSVILLE — The city of mermaids will live on, but the tax rate will be capped at just more than nil.

Three state lawmakers who represent Hernando County agreed Wednesday to file a local bill in the upcoming legislative session to cap Weeki Wachee's tax rate at .001 and strip the city's ability to levy a tax on tangible property.

"I think the path of least resistance right now is to go ahead and lower their tax rate," Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, said during the 10 minute meeting at Brooksville City Hall.

The move would relieve the burden on taxpayers in the city and keep Hernando County and the state from being liable for the city's roughly $1.2 million in outstanding legal bills, lawmakers agreed.

The Legislature created the city in 1966 to put the Weeki Wachee Springs attraction on the map, literally. Since then, the area within the city boundary near U.S. 19 and State Road 50 has developed with a hotel, drug store, large shopping plaza and other outparcels. The landowners are paying ad valorem taxes and business owners are paying tangible property tax.

Last year, Weeki Wachee collected about $45,000 in taxes from an ad valorem rate of 2.1 and an assessed value of about $21 million, records show.

"(Property owners) receive no services for that," Schenck said.

Weeki Wachee Springs transferred to state ownership in 2008 and became a park. Lawmakers voted last November to abolish Weeki Wachee's charter, then learned of the city's legal fees.

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.

Lawmakers are adamant that the county and state will not pay the bills. This way, the city can, at least technically speaking, still collect tax money to work toward paying off the debt, said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.

"I'm disappointed that the city and the few who ran the city with virtually no residents would allow a legal bill like this to accumulate," Fasano said. "And I'm disappointed the law firm did not present this bill a lot sooner."

Nearly all of the legal fees are owed to Brooksville attorney Joe Mason, who represented the city for about eight years. Mason sent the bill to the city last month at the request of Weeki Wachee Mayor Robyn Anderson after the Hernando delegation met in November.

Anderson, a former mermaid who is now a state employee as assistant park manager, has said Mason's bills are probably fair and that the city would cooperate with whatever action lawmakers decide to take. She couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday.

Mason has said the bulk of the bill is for time spent fighting the attraction's landlord, the Southwest Florida Water Management District. He told the Times last month that he never made it a priority to send the bill because he knew the city didn't have the money.

But with a tax rate at nearly zero, Mason would have no hope of receiving payment. Nor would the Miami firm Squire, Sanders and Dempsey, which has sued the city to collect about $58,000 in outstanding legal bills. A representative for the firm did not return a message Wednesday afternoon.

Mason said lawmakers are entering dangerous territory.

"I think they are on constitutional quicksand," he said.

Mason back in 2004 questioned whether the Legislature, in limiting the city's ability to raise taxes, had the constitutional authority to do so. On Wednesday, he called the planned bill a deliberate, premeditated effort to prevent the city from settling its debts.

"I've got a contract to be paid, and if the state takes action so that it impedes the fulfillment of the contract, that is in itself an unconstitutional act," he said.

Mason said he was prepared to fight the move with litigation, but he was unsure when or in what venue that fight might occur.

"You're talking about something that is a very, very unusual circumstance," he said. "Those are questions to which I don't have an answer, but I certainly will be getting an answer."

"My message to Joe Mason is, you can't get blood out of a stone," Fasano countered. "Unless they're building a huge community in the city of Weeki Wachee, I'm not certain where the revenue would come from."

Business owner C.P. Damon said he would welcome a smaller tax bill. Damon, owner of Nellie's Restaurant in the Weeki Wachee Village shopping center, leases his space and paid about $200 in intangible tax to Weeki Wachee last year, according to the tax collector's office.

But Damon said it's still unclear what the long-term effects of the state's ownership might be on the park and, in turn, on nearby businesses. He noted that Nellie's lost money when the state did not put on the annual July 4 fireworks show last year, an event that typically packs his restaurant.

The taxing issue is one more sign that officials are learning those impacts as they go, Damon said.

"The powers that be didn't figure out all the details before jumping into that fire."

With its charter intact, the city would presumably still have to maintain a government and file its quarterly reports to the state, Fasano said.

The city has an elected commission of three members. The commissioners then vote to determine which of them will serve as mayor. The charter allows commissioners to live outside the city boundaries.

In the most recent election last year, the city had no more than a few voting residents, said John Athanason, the marketing coordinator for the park who was appointed a city commissioner last year when his predecessor vacated the position.

Schenck said lawmakers would be researching whether the charter could be abolished if Weeki Wachee's population drops to zero.

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

Weeki Wachee will stay a city, for now 01/06/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 6, 2010 7:28pm]
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