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Rep. Schenck fails to win tax cap for debt-laden Weeki Wachee

BROOKSVILLE — The attempt to cap the city of Weeki Wachee's tax rate at just more than zero has been sunk by constitutional law, Rep. Rob Schenck said Tuesday.

Schenck, R-Spring Hill, filed a bill this session that would limit the tiny city's millage rate to 0.001 mills and strip the ability to levy intangible tax. Such a move, however, would be unconstitutional, the Legislature's attorneys told Schenck Monday.

"It's disappointing because we spent so much time and energy on it," Schenck said.

Hernando County's four-member legislative delegation agreed in January to file the bill this session to ease the burden on taxpayers in the Weeki Wachee city limits. The city does not offer any municipal services such as water, sewer, police and fire protection.

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, drugstore, 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.

Weeki Wachee Springs transferred to state ownership in 2008 and became a park. The Hernando delegation voted in November to abolish Weeki Wachee's charter, then learned that the city has about $1.2 million in outstanding 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. With a tax cap the city could, at least technically speaking, still collect tax money to work toward paying off the debt, lawmakers reasoned.

The Legislature approved a cap for Weeki Wachee for the same reason in 2004. That move must have been unconstitutional, too, Schenck said Tuesday.

"It was never caught," he said.

The delegation will have to discuss the issue at its next meeting, which could be as late as December or January, Schenck said.

Reached Tuesday, Brooksville attorney Joe Mason resisted the urge Tuesday to say, "I told you so."

Mason, who represented Weeki Wachee for nearly a decade, says the city owes him more than $1 million in legal fees. He said back in 2004 that the Legislature's tax cap was unconstitutional and he said the same after the delegation's vote earlier this year.

"The Constitution gives counties and cities a 10 mill taxing authority and the Legislature can't by statute override the Constitution," he said.

State Sen. Mike Fasano looks forward to working toward a solution, the New Port Richey Republican said Tuesday through spokesman Greg Giordano.

"The senator's hope is that city officials have gotten a clear message that the city only exists to promote the attraction and not for any other purpose," Giordano said.

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

Rep. Schenck fails to win tax cap for debt-laden Weeki Wachee 04/07/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 7, 2010 8:15pm]
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